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Downfail: A Dystopian Robot Rebellion Adventure

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Downfail

A Dystopian Robot Rebellion Adventure

George Donnelly

Cheverer

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Did you Like this Book?

About the Author

Also by the Author

Downfail

George Donnelly

***

Copyright 2015 George Donnelly

Shakespir Edition

***

Shakespir Edition, License Notes:

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. But, seriously, please share this book with your friends.

ISBN: 978-1-941939-05-5

Downfail

Book 1 in the Failpocalypse Series

No jobs. Robots took them. Citizens subsist on a basic income guarantee. They consume their lives in drug-fueled virtual reality gaming binges.

Ian Blake doesn’t play games and he won’t accept handouts. He needs to be productive and useful – but his creepy boss just fired the baby-saving hero and father of three.

Ian yearns to build his own robots now. But with a job offer in hand under his old boss in a government agency, he fights his family’s callous material greed and his own self-doubt to build the future he thinks we all need.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2015 George Donnelly

The author greatly appreciates you taking the time to read his work. Please consider leaving a review wherever you bought the book or telling your friends about it to help spread the word.

ISBN: 978-1-941939-05-5

Get 3 free books at GeorgeDonnelly.com.

To the other me who lives in Universe B7849E:

Please keep sending the completed manuscripts.

1

Ian Blake brought his generic white mug up to his mouth using a very efficient elbow movement and took a satisfying, but silent, sip of heavily-sugared near-coffee. He wanted it to be satisfying, but it wasn’t. He pretended it was anyway.

Ian steadied his eyes on the horizon and gritted his teeth. The dull rays of the morning sun struggled to emerge from behind the thick, gray haze of downtown Philadelphia. A few people still moved down the street. “It’s a beautiful day,” he whispered. “It will be.”

Behind him, the wafer-thin front door of the family apartment slammed shut with a hollow yelp. Ian turned and, at once, everything he was avoiding hit him.

“Michael, as long as you’re under my—” Ian started.

Michael stumbled into the kitchen and ripped open the refrigerator door. Empty glass tinkled against itself. Michael bent over, pulled the flashlight from the bottom shelf and shone it into the empty confines of the icebox.

“Hold that thought, Dad,” he said. He craned his neck, opened his mouth and let out a tremendous burp. It resonated into the living room.

Ian closed his eyes and took a stern breath. This stops now. He took a step forward and opened his mouth. His foot caught on something and he flew forward, the black near-coffee spilling out of his mug and flying across the small apartment. It splattered progressively starting on the cheap linoleum floor a meter in front of Ian and ending at the apartment’s front door, running down the door, desperately seeking a quick exit under it.

Ian pulled himself up. He still held the mug but half of it was littered in sharp slivers across the floor on top of the near-coffee. “My father gave that mug to me,” he said, and scowled.

Michael grabbed something from the refrigerator, tossed the flashlight back in without turning it off and slammed the door shut. He scampered unevenly deeper into the kitchen and turned left behind a wall and into his room. The wafer-thin door shut behind him.

“Now, Michael—” Ian started. He looked into the empty kitchen and sighed. Ian bent down to pick up whatever he had tripped on and found the thin leg of his wife. She lay on the floor at the foot of the sofa with the sofa cushions on top of her. He pulled them away to reveal a short-haired woman in a tattered pink robe, barefoot and without panties. An empty vodka bottle and tiny pieces of aluminum foil lay next to her.

Ian kicked her, his steel-toed black boot lightly making contact with the ball of her ankle. “Candy, get up! Candy!” he loud-whispered. He extended his left arm and brought his wrist deftly into position in front of his face. 6:22 AM. Stacy and Jack need to be woken up and fed. “Candy!” Ian kneeled down, grabbed her shoulders and shook. “Candy, you need to get the kids ready for school.”

Candy sat straight up, her eyes still closed and coughed.

The heavy stink of cheap vodka mixed with the foul stench of Vibricide reached Ian’s nose and he turned away. “I can—”

“No,” she said. “I’m up. Go to work.” Candy stood up. Her hair swirled up and out on one side of her head and was flat on the other. She took a step toward the kitchen, flinched, straightened her back, then continued.

“I can stay home if—” Ian started.

“No!” She said it too loudly. “You know what happens when you’re home.” She laughed in a haughty way. “You just bring home the bacon, and I will take care of the home front.”

Ian sighed and crossed his arms. “Is that what you call this? Taking care of a home? Passing out drunk and drugged on the floor with your… your vagina hanging out?”

She reached the kitchen, turned and faced him over the high bar. She jerked her head to one side in mock surprise. “Not used to seeing it anymore, huh, buster?” She pulled a cigarette out from somewhere Ian couldn’t see, lit it with a pink, plastic, single-use lighter and took a deep puff. Her hands shook.

Ian’s breathing slowed. The vivacious young woman he married was still there. It was just the drugs, the drink and the general hopelessness of life that dulled the picture. “Look, Candy. We’re going to clean up this family and that is that.” He looked at his watch. “Michael!” he yelled. “Michael!” He strode into the kitchen and toward the closed door of Michael’s room.

Candy raced to block his path. She got in front of Ian and spread her stick-like arms out to the sides. Her robe untied itself.

Ian stared at her oversized though taut breasts. The surgery had worked, very well indeed. Her washboard abs were holding up well, too, though the edges of the insert jutted out to the sides just a little below her ribs. “You need to keep up your weight.”

Candy twisted her head to one side and grimaced. “Just leave Michael alone,” she said without looking at him.

Ian hesitated. He remembered the loving family they used to be. Candy was so young and excited. Michael was a happy baby, then Stacy… Ian shook his head imperceptibly. Ian looked at Candy again, then took a step forward.

She tightened, her robe still open.

“Michael,” Ian said in a stern voice, “we’re going to have a chat when I get home from work tonight. This cannot—”

“Good morning, Daddy!”

Candy closed her robe and snuck past Ian into the kitchen.

Ian would recognize that Mickey-Mouse-like voice anywhere. He whirled around, a giant smile on his face and picked up the little boy in his oversized hand-me-down footed Star Invaders pajamas. “There you are!” Ian said in a loud and genuinely enthusiastic voice. “My little Jack is up.” Ian grabbed at his youngest son’s belly with mock-clawing fingers.

Jack curled up in his arms and giggled, his thin frame grinding into Ian’s chest and ribs. “No tickling!” he yelled and giggled again.

Ian stopped and looked into his light blue eyes. Sincere eyes. Good eyes. Ian relaxed. Something good will come from this. This one will turn out alright. I won’t fail with him. He set the boy down. “Okay, buster, time to get dressed and—”

“You two were fighting again, weren’t you?” Jack narrowed his eyes in mock disapproval.

“Parents have—” Ian started.

“It stops now. Got it?” Jack hardened his face. “That’s it, kiddo. No more.”

“That’s my line!” Ian yelled. What a kid. He shook his head, bent down and hugged him. He looked at his watch. “Well, buddy, I gotta get to—”

“No, wait,” Jack said, “I just got some new levels on Star Invaders. It’s time to save the world!” The boy said the last part with his right index finger extended, arm held high and in a dramatic voice. “Come on, it’ll be fun.” Jack grabbed his dad’s hand, turned and pulled.

Ian refused to move.

Jack turned around. His face pleaded with his father. “Dad, no. Come on.” His shoulders flopped forward and a pathetic look crossed his face.

“I got assigned to Saturdays.” Ian shrugged. He turned to the fridge and thought about opening it to look for some breakfast, then thought better of it. He opened a cabinet instead. A box of fraspberry-banana Pop-Tarts. His spirit jumped. He grabbed the box. It was empty. He turned it over and shook it. An empty foil wrapper floated out and see-sawed to the floor. Really? He dropped the box to the floor and glared at the back of Candy’s head. “Any plans to go food shopping, I wonder?”

Candy stood at the stove, a slight fidget shaking her body. She did not move.

Jack sighed. “You have to play with me tonight then, Dad. You have to. You understand me, mister?”

Ian tapped his heavy boot into the peeling linoleum floor. It’s not worth it. Not in front of Jack. He turned to the boy and produced a thin smile for him. “Okay, tonight we play. But on the TV, not that VR stuff. It gives me a headache.”

&“Ma’am&, is that yours?” Ian stood on the rough, grubby platform of the Philadelphia El. A bald man in a cheap suit pushed past him, knocking him square in the shoulder. Ian twitched his mustache, righted his cap and took his position again. He scanned the platform. All clear.

The young woman stood with her back to him. The tasseled ends of an overlong red knitted scarf hung down her back. Bright yellow headphones covered her ears.

Ian looked back at the car she exited from. There was a package there, on the faded orange and black seat. And it was moving.

Ian grabbed his shoulder radio and held the red button. “Larry, hold the train manually. Lady left something behind.”

Ian walked purposefully up behind the lady and tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up at him, her eyes wide but unfocused. She stank of sour milk. “What did you do with my baby?” she asked him. “Where is she?” She grabbed the front of his spotless gray uniform and shook him.

“Your baby?” Ian asked. Oh, it’s her baby. Glad we got that settled. “No problem, ma’am, I’ll get your baby back.” Ian turned but the woman did not let go.

“Do you promise?” she asked. Her eyes focused on nothing. But the pain in her voice was obvious.

Ian smiled. “Of course. You just left her over—”

“Oh, thank God. Thank you, sir. I— I thought…” Her head hung forward and she leaned against a metal beam. “I mean, I was really…”

I can’t tell if she’s on drugs or just blind. Maybe both. Ian shook his head and stepped toward the train. The doors closed and the familiar whine of the electric engine signaled the train’s acceleration out of the station.

Oh shit. Ian looked for the baby. There she was, still on the seat, wrapped in a purple blanket. The blanket opened and the baby’s pudgy arms and legs broke out in all directions.

“Larry, stop the train,” Ian said into his shoulder mic. “There’s a baby on the train, repeat a baby alone on the train. Stop the train, now.”

The train accelerated. Ian ran alongside it and got the carriage number: 30954. The train hit that bump they refused to fix and the baby teetered on the edge of the seat. He could fall. He could smother himself in the blanket. Jesus, these people and their drugs.

“Larry! Jesus, Larry, stop the damned train!” Ian yelled it out loud this time, not bothering with his radio. He ran past the stairs to street level and towards the control booth. It was empty. The control board was off. Ian stared at it for a moment, dumbfounded. This is the control booth. There has to be someone here at all times.

Ian looked down the platform, then turned the opposite way and looked up. Larry. You did it this time. He grabbed his shoulder mic. “Emergency, track 7. Larry! Where are you?”

The mother wandered towards the edge of the platform. “Did you find her? Sir?”

“Stay where you are, ma’am. We will get your daughter back. Don’t worry.” Ian put his hands on his hips. Do I abandon my post to go find Larry? Or do I wait here and pretend like nothing is happening?

The mother took another step towards the faint yellow line that marked the border between getting on a train and dying underneath one. A train arrived on the other side of the platform and people piled out. A crowd came up the stairs and collided with the arriving people. The platform filled and Ian lost sight of the mother.

Ian remembered the time he got stuck in that public bathroom with mom. She sent him to the bathroom by myself and someone locked the door, from the outside. He shivered. That almost… No, don’t go there. If it wasn’t for that janitor… He shook his head.

Ian found the woman again and ran to her. He pulled her away from the edge and guided her over to the wall next to the steps. “Just stay here— What is your name?”

Her eyes wandered. “Lorelai. That’s her. Is she okay? Where is she?”

“Lorelai… Wait, what’s your— Never mind. Just stay here.” Ian put his hands on her shoulders and pushed down. “Stay here, no matter what. Stay here and wait. I will bring Lorelai back to you if you just stay right here. Do you understand?” Ian took one more look at the crowds on the platform. Distracted, VR-implanted, drug-addled people get stuck in doors. They fall off the tracks. It happens all the time.

But the baby. Ian ran down the pockmarked cement stairs, turned right at the bottom and burst through the rickety, blue door.

The room was empty.

Larry, goddamnit. Ian turned left and pushed through a freshly painted, red and considerably more solid door. On the other side was the new control room. It was small, smaller now that the new automation was installed. The old system of levers and switch sensors was replaced with just a computer terminal.

Ian sat down, punched in his access code and brought up carriage 30954. It was part of train xa42 and headed for maintenance at the depot. There it would sit in the hot sun for a day or week among dozens of others waiting to be cleaned, lubed and maybe even repainted. Shit.

Ian took a deep breath to speak and reached for his shoulder mic. He stopped and rolled his eyes. If you want something done – at all these days – you’ve got to do it yourself. He brought up the routing interface, scrolled through until he found xa42 and ordered it immediately re-routed to his station for continued duty.

The system would compensate. It would send some other train back. It would clear the tracks for xa42. That was the whole point of the automated system: so they could fire a bunch of guys and the rest of us could just tell the computer what it had to do. And it would do it.

Ian hit return and the system demanded his access code again. Ian frowned. He entered it, hit return and the access code request flickered back again. Shit. I need Larry’s code. Ian rolled his eyes. How they promoted him over me. That slick son of a gun. Ian chuckled.

Ian stood up and looked around the largely empty control center. He opened empty cabinets and jerked out stuck drawers. Nothing. They were paperless now. Is this really progress? Wasn’t it the invention of writing that gave us a great leap forward? And now, suddenly, no more writing allowed.

Wait a second. Ian strode over to the computer, hunched down and ran his hand under the keyboard tray. A small piece of paper was stuck there. He gently pulled it off, stood up and dusted off his pants.

It was blank. Damnit. Wait. Ian flipped it over and held it up to the light. In a light pencil, it said “CandyUrMine2034.” Ian’s breath stopped and the world around him disappeared. No. No, that’s not right. That could mean anything, or anyone. Ian moved slowly back to the computer and sat down. His eyes unfocused into eternity. My Candy? He shook his head. Ridiculous. Ian carefully typed the letters into the access code box. His hand hovered over the execute button. Really? That’s your password?

&“Is the baby alright&?” Ian stood underneath the Allegheny El station, out in the darkened street under the tracks. He rested his hand against the cool, dented back door of the ambulance and looked expectantly at the paramedic.

The man, dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit with a peeling yellow star over his heart, spoke a final jumble of medical words into his device, rolled it up and stuck it in his back pocket. He checked the back door of the ambulance and headed for the driver’s seat.

Ian followed. “Sir, the baby? Is she going to—”

The man turned, his hand to his forehead, eyes closed. “Uh, right, yeah, just some dehydration, malnutrition, nothing serious.”

Ian nodded. Internally, he smiled. I saved a baby today.

The paramedic turned, got into the ambulance and gently pulled the door shut until the catch clicked. “Engine start. Hospital selection. Infant. Dehydration. Low priority.”

Ian walked to the door and looked at the medic through the lowered window. “What about the mother? Is she on something?”

The paramedic studied his dashboard and mumbled, “Approved.” The ambulance shifted into gear and it bounced slightly against its wheels. He turned to Ian with a look of withering condescension on his face. “A word of advice: don’t try to save any more lives, not in this world. Not these people. Too many of them anyway.” He shook his head. The ambulance took off at a gentle roll and merged into traffic, its sirens blaring.

&“These delusions& of grandeur have to stop.” Larry sat behind his desk in a tiny, gray office adjacent to the control center, his face a caricature of genuine concern. “The one I really worry about is Candy.” He laid one hand on his bowling ball belly and slid deeper into the wooden chair, his legs splayed wide. It creaked its complaint. The other hand landed on the side of his head and scratched at the fuzzy pelt that covered the sides and back quite abundantly. The top of his head, however, was completely bald.

Ian stood across from him on the other side of Larry’s desk. There was nowhere for him to sit. The walls were bare. There were no filing cabinets. Only the desk and single chair remained. “What do you mean, that you worry about Candy?”

Larry sat up straight and cleared his throat. He shrugged one shoulder and frowned. “You have a family to support, Ian, that’s all. Candy has become accustomed to a certain standard of living, and, well…”

Ian laughed internally. Still after Candy, huh? She could never see anything in this louse. Or could she? She’s been unhappy. But unfaithful? Ian put the thought out of his mind.

“Now, look, Ian, we’re old— Wait, are you done for the day?” Larry asked.

Ian nodded. “You made the schedule. Boss.”

Larry shot him an angry glare. He stood up and tucked his dress shirt into his loose-fitting pants. He took a deep breath, his gut expanded and he let it out again in one giant blast. “You’ve got all your stuff, right?”

Ian tilted his eyebrows up. “And?”

Larry looked straight at him and frowned. “I have to let you go, buddy. Orders from the top.” A nervous smile crossed his face before he suppressed it. He sat back down and put his feet up on the desk.

Ian stared at him. That’s not right. “I saved a baby this morning. I saved the city from—”

“You re-routed a train, thus causing mayhem in the city network. You hacked the system—”

Ian guffawed. “I didn’t hack anything. I just used your access code. Which, by the way, is a little creepy. And not very secure.”

Larry cleared his throat and looked away. “In any case, you’re fired. Sorry. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Hell, you should be my boss. My boss’s boss! You’re the most competent guy in this organization. But I guess that no longer matters, with the automation and all.”

“I saved a baby’s life today. How can you fire me for that?” Ian paused and tried to reason it through. I save baby, they fire me. There is no logical connection here.

“The truth is, they were going to let you go anyway!” Larry stood up and pushed his chair in. “The automation plan—”

“The union said they would still keep both of us here,” Ian said.

Larry ignored him. “The automation plan is complete. They only need a skeleton crew at Base. Everything else will be automated.”

“I’m thirty-nine, Larry. What am I going to do?”

Larry jerked his neck to the right. “Y’ello.” He said with a suppressed smile and an authoritative but casual tone. He listened. “Right now? It would be my pleasure.” He laughed mischievously and jerked his neck to the left. “Anyway, Ian, that’s it. They’ll dock you for the costs associated with those delays you caused but I talked them out of pressing charges.”

“Charges? For what?” Ian asked.

Larry shook his head and headed for the door. He stopped next to Ian. “You’re an old-fashioned kind of guy. Not an order-taker but a man with principles. I like that about you!” He slapped Ian on the back and walked out the door.

Ian stood in the empty room listening to the screeches of the trains against the rails. Trains, engineering, it’s all I’ve wanted to do for twenty years, ever since Candy got pregnant. “What do I do now?” he whispered to himself.

&Ian stepped& into his apartment and closed the flimsy front door behind him. Drug Control had broken it down so many times now, there was no point in replacing it. It would only be money wasted. And now he didn’t even have the option. They’d need every cent they had to weather this.

They might even have to move out. Where would they go?

He plodded in and fell into his ratty but beloved, garishly-checkered couch. A spring coil poked into his thigh and he adjusted himself. “Real News,” he said.

Candy trotted into the living room in a bright purple leotard, her legs kicking behind her. “Pause,” she said, and took off her deep green augmented reality glasses. “You’re home early, and watching the news?” She scowled at him. “I haven’t seen in you front of the screen in years!” She turned and yelled down the hallway that led to two bathrooms and three bedrooms. “Stacy, come on! Your dad is looking at a screen!” She laughed.

“Volume up five,” Ian said. No respect at work. At home, they laugh at me. I need to be tougher with these people.

Stacy bounded into the living room in her underwear. She looked over the top of her AR glasses and giggled. “Daddy! What are you— Hey, I am going to need the TV soon, you know.”

Ian looked at her, his mouth a thin line. “Could you put some clothes on, young lady? It’s one thing to traipse around half-naked when you’re six, but at your age?”

“But, Daddy,” Stacy said, “I am—” She pushed her glasses down. “Oops! I’m dressed in Funation!” She rolled her eyes. “I am such a wooly!” She sauntered energetically back to her room and closed the door while babbling to a girlfriend.

Ian turned back to the news. The President was offering up a soundbite on a group of college kids who, while playing a hacked AR game, threw themselves in front of an Amtrak bullet train. The lone survivor, who lost both legs and an arm, thought they were jumping into a Hollywood jacuzzi.

It was incomprehensible to him. One world was hard enough to keep straight. He didn’t need two or three. Just one, ordered world with strong families, good jobs and some grandkids down the line.

Candy cleared her throat. “What are you doing here this early? You know this causes an inconvenience for me.” She crossed her arms. “It’s not fair.”

Ian laughed and spread his arms out to cover the entire couch. “Me relaxing in my home is a problem for you?” He laughed and shook his head.

“Larry Kunkle,” the screen said, “is just a common stationmaster at the Philadelphia El. But today, he became a hero.”

Ian stared at the screen incredulous.

“Oh, is this what Larry was talking about?” Candy sat down on the edge of the couch and pushed Ian to the opposite side. That spring scraped his leg again.

A young Asian woman appeared on screen with Ian’s station in the background. Former station.

“It was right here, just this morning, when a young woman lost her baby on the El, that stationmaster Larry Kunkle came to the rescue. Kunkle acted quickly to reroute the trains and save the newborn baby’s life. And our hero is with us right now.”

The camera panned and there was Larry Kunkle. Ian’s mouth hung open. Did I dream that I did that? Was I on AR? Drugs? Ian remembered back to the purple blanket, the kicking baby legs, the strung-out mother. I was there. That was me. I ordered the train back. I pulled the baby off of it. And I got fired for it.

“Look at that, good old Larry. What a guy he is! Stacy! It’s your uncle Larry on TV! He’s a hero!”

“Larry is not her uncle,” Ian said. No relation at all.

“You’re just jealous,” Candy said with a dismissive wave.

On screen, the reporter turned to an unusually bright and smiling Larry. “It was easy,” he said. “It was nothing. Well, it took some doing, I’ll tell you that.”

“How did you save Baby Daphne, Larry? Tell our viewers what happened,” the reporter said.

Larry’s face blanked with panic and a sly smile crept onto Ian’s face. The bastard liar hasn’t even prepared a good story.

Larry’s face flashed serious. “Oh, it was very challenging. I had to find the right train. It was an impossible task, but thankfully the new automated systems made it possible to bring the baby’s train back to the station, relatively quickly, you know, after I, of course, did the hard work, by myself.” He cleared his throat and the big-eyed look of panic returned.

“Screen off,” Ian said. He stood up and turned left to the square, undersized picture window that dominated their living room. Gray clouds hung over the drab, cement block buildings that sat perpendicular to his. It roiled his stomach. It was a disgusting, dog-eat-dog world where anyone could swipe even the heart right out of your chest if you didn’t keep a close watch.

&The front door creaked open&. “Anybody home?” asked a voice.

Ian drew a deep breath. He was in his bed, his eyes still shut. A cool breeze came through the window. He felt fresh, rested. He reveled in the smoothness of the sheets. After that day, I needed a good night’s— Ian sat up in bed and checked his watch. 8:53 PM.

Damnit. Ian threw himself out of bed and headed into the hallway. How did that happen? Unemployed just a few hours and already I’m sleeping during the day. What’s next? Drugs? Funation? And here I am trying to set a good example for Michael.

“Hey buddy!”

Ian stopped short just outside of the bedroom he nominally shared with Candy and looked up. Unbelievable.

“Did you see me on the news, buddy?” Larry leered at him with those fake, polar-white teeth. He flipped his lucky silver coin. It tinged, floated up, then landed back in his hand and he shoved it in his pocket. Candy and Stacy stood behind him with expectant smiles.

Ian stared at him, unable to move. Larry had pulled some questionable moves in the past, but nothing like this. This was unprecedented.

Candy trotted up beside Larry and ran her arm along his. “Larry,” she said in a sultry voice, “can I get you something?” She tilted her head to one side and smiled up at him.

Larry turned his head to her without taking his eyes off of Ian. “Champagne. Ian keep any around, by chance?”

“Ian? Champagne? Old Tightwad himself?” She laughed. “Never!” She turned to Stacy. “Call the store for some champagne. Have them send it ASAP.”

“You bet, anything for the hero Uncle Larry,” said Stacy. She traipsed off, half-dressed, to the kitchen to place the order.

Ian ground his teeth. He took a step towards Larry and jammed his index finger into the air in front of the fake’s face. “I didn’t know that you had that much dishonesty in you, Larry. I knew you were dishonest, but to take credit for what I did—”

Larry whirled around, put his arm around Candy and guided her towards the kitchen. Her robe opened slightly at the chest and he snuck a look.

Ian followed him into the living room. Jack sat hunched-over on the couch, looking at a mobile screen. Ian looked at Larry. Jack looks so lonely over there. Ian turned, walked over and sat next to Jack.

“Hey, little man!” Ian whispered to Jack. He put his arm around the boy’s thin frame and pulled him into him. “Why so glum?”

Jack tapped something on his screen, then turned away from Ian with a jerk of his shoulder. “No, nothing.” He added in a mumble that was barely perceptible over the din of Candy and Larry’s laughing, “…even remembers…”

Ian smiled. “What’s that game we’re going to play tonight? What’s the name again?”

Jack whipped around, his face a study in joy. “Star Invaders. I thought you forgot!”

“Why don’t you get it ready?”

“So, Ian,” Larry said in a projected voice from the kitchen, “what are your plans now that, you know, you lost your job?”

Ian closed his eyes, mortified. Here comes the inevitable Candy overreaction.

“What!” Candy screamed, her voice reverberating off the cement walls.

Ian saw in his mind’s eye the familiar look of outraged shock on her face: the open mouth, the bulging eyes, the selfish attitude of entitlement.

“What does he mean, you lost your job?”

Jack trotted back into the living room, the virtual reality goggles and gaming controllers piled against his chest. A look of worry distorted his face. “Can we still play?” he whispered.

“Of course,” Ian said with a certainty he didn’t feel. His stomach clenched up. I hate this. And I wish Jack didn’t have to see it. “Let’s play in your room. I’ll be along in a minute.” He stood up and faced Candy across the breakfast bar.

“You lost,” Candy said with exaggerated facial movements, “your job?” She turned to Larry. “Really?” She stood too close to him and her arm was around his lower back.

“Larry fired me,” Ian said.

“Well, I’m sure he had a good reason,” Candy said, still looking at Larry.

“I saved that baby girl today,” Ian said.

Candy stared at him open-mouthed.

“Larry fired me and apparently took the credit himself. Yeah, he’s a great guy, that Uncle Larry.”

Ian stared at Larry. Larry stared back at him, his eyes narrow slits of hurt, envy and defiance.

“Larry saved that baby,” Stacy said from Larry’s other side. “It was on the news.”

Larry laughed. “You know good old Ian and his delusions of grandeur.” He stared straight at Ian. “Just like when we were back in college, Candy, you remember? He thought he could be a robotics scientist.” Larry guffawed. “Ian. A scientist! And then, of course, you got pregnant and he did the right thing. Reality bashed those delusions of grandeur.”

He turned to Stacy and put his arm around her, his hand resting on the top of her exposed butt cheek. “I like your dad, darling. I hated to have to let him go. But between the damages and the automation—”

“I just rerouted the train,” Ian said.

“What are we going to do?” Candy asked.

“Oh, I can lend you some money until you get on the basic income,” Larry said.

“Oh, right, I heard about that at school,” Stacy said. “Great idea, Uncle Larry.” She patted his hand and smiled up at him.

Ian raged. He stood up and faced Larry, eye to eye. “Get your hand off my daughter’s ass. Now.”

Larry eyes seemed to recede deeper into his head but he didn’t break their eye contact.

“Daddy, it’s no big deal, it’s just Uncle Larry. He doesn’t—”

Ian turned to Stacy. “Get to your room! And put some clothes on already. You’re sixteen!”

Larry pulled Stacy tighter into his side and she giggled.

“What’s this basic income?” Candy asked Larry in a whisper.

Jack came around the corner of the hallway and into the living room. He carried the gaming goggles and controllers. “Dad, can we play now?” The look of expectant hurt on the boy’s face crushed Ian’s heart.

Ian closed his eyes and shook his head. He didn’t want to let the boy down again. The only one with any hope of turning out right. The one who most took after him. But the frustration, the betrayal, the sense of worthlessness overcame him. “I can’t right now. I have to get some air.” Ian stormed out of the apartment over the sounds of Candy and Stacy giggling.

2

Ian pushed through the door to his apartment and opened the fridge. It was short, with a small freezer on top so he had to bend way down in order to see into it. A cockroach popped out of a half-open Chinese food container. Ian jumped back and slammed the door.

There are four of them. I work all day. She doesn’t even work. Why? Why can’t one of them keep decent house? If not for me then at least for Jack.

He thought about Jack and that hurt face of his. I really screwed up.

Michael came out of his room off the kitchen and stopped short when he saw Ian blocking his only way out.

“You get a job yet, Dad?” Michael asked. His hands fidgeted below his waist and a nervous smile crossed his face. “Never thought I’d be asking you that question, huh?”

Ian narrowed his eyes. He studied the boy. Nineteen, his first-born son, and still at home. No job prospects, never excelled at education. Not even a girlfriend. I know he’s doing drugs. What do I do with this kid? “Nothing yet, what—”

“See, Dad? It’s not that easy to get a job today! You had a good job so you could judge me, but not anymore!” Michael sniffed.

I should have been home more often. I should have given him more of my time. Is this my fault? No, it can’t be. I did my job. I brought home the money. I worked. I paid for everything. I let Candy take charge of— Maybe that was my mistake. “Nothing worth doing is easy, son.”

“Fuck you and your psalms, or whatever those are,” Michael said. “I’m going out.” He took a step towards Ian.

Ian stepped into his path. This was his chance, maybe his last chance, to get Michael onto the right track, to start fixing their relationship. To whip the lazy whiner into shape. “You’re not going out, not until we figure this out.”

“Forget it, Dad, there’s nothing to figure out. You’re an asshole and I’m a lazy whiner, right? I know that’s what you think of me. You can’t deny it!”

A door opened behind him and Ian heard undersized, traipsing footsteps headed in his direction. “Dad,” Jack yelled, “can we play now?”

Ian crossed his arms. “Michael, tell me, what do you do around the house? Do you cook? Clean? Do you help pay for groceries? What exactly do you contribute to this household?”

Michael’s face contorted into an expression of hurt and outrage. “How dare you? I’m your child. I’m your responsibility. You have to take care of me. You…”

Ian smiled thinly. “You’re not a child anymore, Michael. You’re—”

“Anyway, I’m getting the basic income now. I guess now that you lost your job you’ll want to mooch some of that off of me, huh? Well it’s only two-thousand a month. And I need that for my car and my gaming career and other basics. So—”

Great. I produced a parasite. Ian swallowed as he carefully selected his words. Screw it. “You can’t live in my house and be on welfare. It’s that simple. We’re Blakes. We work for a living.”

Michael’s face visibly relaxed. “I signed up last night. I was the first one in our neighborhood. Starting next week, I’ll get two-thousand dollars per month, every month, for the rest of my life. If you’re smart, you’ll do the same thing.” He pushed past Ian and strode out the door.

&“I win&! You lose!” Jack yelled at his father and then collapsed into giggling. “Why did you do that?”

Ian shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I… just have my mind somewhere else, I guess.”

Jack jammed his hand into Ian’s ribs and started scratching around with a smile on his face.

“I’m really not in the mood for tickling, buddy,” Ian said. I’m about in the mood to jump off a bridge.

Jack sat back, crestfallen. He was silent for a moment, then spoke up, “Dad, there’s this new game—”

Ian studied his youngest son’s gorgeous face. Out of all of them, he was the only one who looked like his dad: a pleasantly-rounded face, brown hair, blue eyes. If only I could buy him everything he ever wanted, I would. Over and over again. “I can’t do it, not right now. I just lost my job.”

Jack looked down. “It’s only three dollars. I mean, if you get a chance.”

“After I get a new job, okay? It shouldn’t be long.”

The boy’s face darkened. “It’s okay, Dad. I can wait.” He got up and walked towards his room.

Ian’s heart sank. He leaned back into the overworn couch, the mid-morning sun warming his shoulders. He sighed, then sighed again, this time more violently. It won’t hurt to look at it, to just investigate it. He closed his eyes, laid his head back and allowed the top of his head to be warmed. His thoughts drifted to college. Everything was better then – before he knew Candy. His mind reeled at the idea. My family is everything I have. I have to stick this through. He yawned. There is something I am missing. I feel like I am asleep and I need to wake up. He slapped his cheek, gently at first, then hard. But it made no difference.

Ian pulled his mobile screen out of his back pocket and unfolded it until it was the size of a legal pad. He typed in ‘basic income’ and a video instantly played.

“With forty percent employment and the growing robotization of industry—”

Ian skipped ahead with a jerk of his finger.

“The national basic income guarantee is available to all United States residents, citizen or not, over the age of majority: fourteen. Every individual receives the same amount. No labor is required in exchange for your basic income, which is your right as a sovereign human being and American national.”

Ian rolled his eyes. A sense of deep shame erupted in him. Free money? Government money? It offended him at a root level. An image popped into his mind. His German grandfather, in suspenders and a beat-up old hat, plowing his land with a team of horses. The old man was ninety-three then.

The video continued. “You only need visit your local basic income office with proof of residency, valid voter registration card and submit to a toxicology screen. A DNA sample is also required.”

He clicked away. A video ad occupied his entire screen. A man in a top hat and monocle popped into existence. “It’s the First Annual Basic Income Robotics Challenge! All you budding robotics wantrepreneurs, here is your chance! Prepare a personal service robot prototype by June 1, demonstrate it for us here at the Basic Income Administration and the winner takes home one million dollars in startup funding! It’s that easy! Sponsored by the Basic Income Administration, we make dreams come true. Full details at basic income dot gov slash robotics. Government employees ineligible for prizes. Some conditions apply.”

Jack ran around the corner into the living room. “Dad, that’s perfect for you! That’s just what you need! Let’s do it, Dad! Come on!”

Ian smiled at his son’s enthusiasm. “I’m too old for such things. Better the prize money go to a young person. Maybe you’d like to do it.”

“I don’t know anything about robots! I’m only nine!” Jack yelled.

“I’m just too old to start something new. I had my chance. I chose to start a family and now I have to live with that decision,” Ian said.

&Ian drifted up from a soft&, lazy dream. A cool breeze wafted over him. He sat in the shade on a quiet beach. There was no one around, he was completely alone. He closed his eyes and smiled.

He opened his eyes. Jack’s grinning face greeted him. He lay on the couch, his mouth was dry and he had to go to the bathroom.

“It’s a family meeting, Dad,” Jack said. His face said it all: you’re in for it now.

Candy, Michael and Stacy stood behind the boy, their arms crossed and each with one foot tapping the floor. Do they even realize?

“We found some jobs for you, Dad,” said Stacy. She was dressed this time, if that’s what you can call a bikini top and a mini pencil skirt.

“Yeah,” said Michael, “it’s time you shape up and take some responsibility.”

“We need money,” said Candy. “The kids have expenses: gaming, medication, trips, clothes, food, of course, and let’s not forget the rent!”

Ian rubbed his eyes and sat up. It’s an ambush. Deep within him, a sense of moral outrage grew. You people only live because of my dedication, my intelligence. But he quashed it. They’re right. I have a responsibility to care for this family. She is my wife. These are my kids. I am the man. I have always provided. They need me.

Michael brought his screen out from behind his back. “Skyscraper window washer. It pays even more than you made before.” He regarded his father with a delicate smugness. It could be shattered at any moment.

Ian fought to clear the brain fog of an afternoon nap. I should never sleep during the day. He felt a panic to get up, to do something. But do what? “Skyscraper window washer. The outside of the windows or the inside?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “The outside, of course!”

“Even on the top floor?” Ian asked. He imagined himself hanging from the top of the Prudential building, the wind in his hair, the sun warming him above. It might not be too bad.

“All the floors,” Michael said.

“Isn’t that a little dangerous?” Ian asked.

“But it pays well, Daddy,” Stacy said. “We need the money.”

“They’re going to throw us out on the street!” Candy screamed. She looked at the ceiling, then down to Ian, then back to the ceiling. “I mean, it’s money. What do we do without money? We have nothing!”

Michael touched her arm. “It’s okay, Mom. Dad will do the right thing. He always does.” He turned to Jack and punched him gently in the arm. “Isn’t that right, kiddo?”

Ian looked at Jack. He felt for him. The youngest of this pack of wolves? And he has to actually spend time with them. What will he say? Ian felt calm, cool, his mind empty for once. It felt good. It was all good, no matter what happened. As long as his Jack was okay.

Jack’s face darkened. “I’m not okay with it. Dad could die! What would we do without him? I need a dad more than I need new video games.” Jack looked at his siblings and mother. Their faces were blank. “You don’t even care!”

Ian admired the passion in his boy and a small smile crept onto his face before Candy noticed it and he wiped it away.

Candy cleared her throat. “Of course we care about your father. We love him. But—”

“You’re lying!” Jack yelled.

“Now listen here, young man,” said Candy. “You won’t talk to your mother like that. Go to your room. This meeting is for adults only.”

“It’s a family meeting and I’m staying!” Jack yelled.

Ian laughed and offered his arms out to his son. Jack run over and hugged him. “I love you, Dad,” the boy whispered into his father’s ear.

There was silence for a moment, then Michael spoke up. “They also need crab fishermen in Alaska.”

“This is how it’s going to go,” Ian said. He sat back and put his hands behind his neck. “We’re going to cut expenses, radically. All of the gaming subscriptions are gone. I’m cutting them all now.”

“But, Dad, I need—” Michael started.

Ian fixed his glare on him. “Everyone who is staying at this house will abide by these rules.”

Candy let out an exasperated sigh. “Dear, you can’t just—”

“Yes, I can, and I will. This is how it will go. We’re cutting expenses, we’re—”

“But I’m in charge of expenses,” Candy said.

“Not anymore. I want all the papers and account access,” Ian said. His heart trembled but his gaze was steady and firm.

Candy stared at him, her face slack and her eyes distant. She shook her head.

“There will be no more ordering of food. Candy, you will prepare a sensible shopping list and cook healthy food for us three times per day.”

Candy’s lip curled. “No,” she said in a small voice.

“Kids, your allowances are stopped—”

“No, Daddy! Just no!” Stacy yelled.

Michael stared at him in silence, his chest heaving up and down. “You’re not in charge here. You’re just one member of this family. There are five of us.”

“Six if you count Uncle Larry,” said Stacy, her hand on her hip.

“Uncle Larry is not actually anyone’s uncle,” Ian said. “Now—”

“This is bullshit. I’m leaving,” said Michael.

“I’m just doing the rational thing, Michael. I am trying to save this family.”

“This is about your ego. You just want to control us.”

“How can you say that? I have always let your mother take care of our home.”

“Maybe you should continue.”

Candy spoke up. “If your father wants to be a househusband, it’s okay with me. He can cook and clean and pay the bills. It’s okay with me.”

“We should all chip in,” said Jack.

“We may have to move to a smaller apartment,” Ian said.

“That’s it!” Candy yelled. “That’s where I draw the line!”

Ian shrugged.

“Why don’t you sell a kidney? I know a place where they pay top dollar.”

“Mom!” Jack yelled.

The front door swung open with a bang. “Hey, kids! It’s Uncle Larry, with some presents!” Larry stepped in carrying shopping bags and wearing what was obviously a new leather jacket.

Stacy ran up to him, her steps high and excited. She grabbed his arm and rubbed her hand against the coat. “Is it real leather?”

Larry put his arm around her waist and pulled her to him. His hand hovered above her butt cheek. Ian couldn’t tell if it was touching or not. “Well, of course, darling,” said Larry. “Someday I’ll get you one just like it. Nothing but the best for you, baby.” He let Stacy go and she giggled.

“Our family meeting is not over,” Jack said in a loud voice. “Hey!” None of them looked back at him and so he looked at his father, an expression of helplessness on his face. “I tried,” he whispered.

Ian motioned to him and the boy threw himself onto his father’s lap. “They’re different,” Ian said. “It’s okay. We’ll always have each other, you and I. Isn’t that right?”

“I don’t want you to die,” Jack whispered and his eyes puffed up.

A wave of tenderness came over Ian. It was not a common feeling for him and it felt unusual and dangerous to feel it right now, in front of these people – in front of everyone but Jack. “Listen—”

Larry appeared in front of them. Ian, surprised, stood up and offered him his hand. Larry offered a thin smile, then sat down on the couch where Ian had been sitting. Stacy ran over and sat on his lap.

“Ian, buddy, why don’t you offer your guest a beer,” Larry said without taking his eyes off of Stacy’s chest.

Stacy giggled, then looked up at her father. “Well, come on, Dad. Larry is our guest.”

Jack looked up at his father, his face pure outrage.

Ian rubbed his son gently on the back and shook his head. He stood by and watched. He wanted to drink it all in. Just what are they playing at?

“Oh, I’ll get that!” said Candy from the kitchen. Ian watched as she hastily grabbed the last remaining can of Schlitz from the back of the refrigerator, popped its tab and poured it into a fresh glass. She poured too fast and the head filled the glass up before she could empty the whole can. She brought it to Larry anyway.

“That’s some good head there, Candy,” he said with a grin.

Candy giggled and took a seat next to him. She turned her body halfway towards him until her knees touched his thigh. “There’s more where that came from.”

“Mom! That’s disgusting!” Stacy yelled.

“Go to your room, little girl!” Candy said in an unusually calm voice.

“Ladies, ladies, there is enough of me to go around,” Larry said with a laugh. “Let’s all take it easy. Ian, why don’t you take a seat? We have something to talk about.”

Ian narrowed his eyes.

Jack pulled on his dad’s arm. “Let’s go play.”

Ian nodded and they walked towards Jack’s room.

“How’s that new job, Ian? What’s it gonna be? Window washer or crab fisherman?” Larry asked. One arm was around his daughter and the other lay just above his wife’s shoulders.

Jack pulled at his arm.

“Don’t worry about—” Ian started.

“How about as my own personal assistant at the Department of Robots, Basic Income Administration, Washington, D.C.?” Larry brought his left hand down and placed it squarely on Stacy’s butt cheek. Ian swore he saw him flex the hand. The other he brought down over Candy’s chest and rested on her breast.

Ian felt his face heating up.

Candy turned and faced Larry. “You got a new job? In Washington?”

Larry nodded without looking at her.

“Congratulations, Uncle Larry,” Stacy said. “That’s great news!”

“Why don’t you have a beer,” Larry said to Ian, “and we’ll have a chat.”

“Oh, that was the last one,” Candy said. She inched closer to Larry.

Do they realize how foolish they are, all jockeying for position around Larry? How quick they are to abandon ship – all but my good Jack.

“It’s nine-to-five hours, better than you were making at the El, you get to work under me and you’ll pick up a thing or two about robotics,” said Larry.

“My dad is an expert on robotics,” said Jack. “He studied it in college. He should be your boss.”

Ian suppressed a smile.

“I’ll—” Ian started.

“You can think about it,” said Larry, “but I’ll need to know by tomorrow morning. It’s a good job and it’ll go fast.”

“He’ll take it,” Candy said.

Larry laughed. “Best to listen to the little woman. Happy wife, happy life, right?” He squeezed her breast and pulled her closer.

“He’s not interested in your job! He’s going to design robots!” said Jack. “Come on, Dad, let’s go save the world!”

“Now, hold on, Jack,” Ian said.

Jack looked up at him, startled. “But, Dad,” he whispered.

“I will let you know my decision tomorrow, Larry.” He turned and walked out the door.

Jack trailed along behind him, begging him to play with him.

3

“I just want to spend some quiet time with you,” Ian said to Jack. They sat on the couch in the early morning haze. Michael, Stacy and Candy were all passed out next to each other on the floor.

“Why do they do that?” Jack asked.

“What?” Ian asked. He slouched down on the old couch and tried to find a comfortable position. He sat back up again.

“You know!” Jack loud-whispered.

“Oh, the pills and the, uh…”

“Yeah!”

They’re lazy. Depressed. The possibilities ran through his head but in reality he had no idea. “It’s hard for them,” he said.

“Will it be hard for me?” Jack asked.

Damn. That one came back fast. “You’re more like me, don’t you think? I don’t need that stuff.”

Jack nodded. “We’re different from them.”

“That’s right, but like them, too. It’s complicated.”

Jack frowned and shook his head. “No, I don’t get it.”

Ian laughed. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But I need to understand.”

“Let’s talk about something else.”

Jack sighed. “Fine. When are you going to start working on your robotics stuff again?

“I was actually hoping to rest up a few more days. Then I guess I’ll start working with Larry again.”

“But you said you hated working with him. He’s a jerk.”

“Did I say that? No, I couldn’t have.”

“Dad, he’s a jerk! He comes over here and puts his hands all over Mom and Stacy.”

“What? Don’t say that. He’s just… being friendly.”

Jack crossed his arms and scowled. “You know that’s not—”

“Listen. These are big people issues. You’re only nine. You shouldn’t be worrying about stuff like this. Let me worry about it, okay?”

Jack smiled. “I’ll let that go if you show me your old robots and we start working on a new one.”

“I don’t know, kiddo. It’s a long shot. We need money now. Or we’ll lose this place.”

“Come on, Dad. You have today. You can spend today on it. What else do you have to do today?”

Ian opened his mouth to protest but Jack ran out of the room and quickly returned with a dusty box. Jack dropped the box on the floor in front of his dad, opened it and pulled out a series of black creatures in various shapes and sizes.

“Your old robots,” Jack said. He handed a crab-like, matte black robot the size of his hand to his dad. “Your old multi-tool is in here, too.”

Ian turned the robot over in his hands and rubbed his fingers against the rough, 3D-printed shell. The heavy, burnt smell brought him back to the lab at the University of Chicago. I loved that work. He gripped the item in his hand and felt the thrill of discovery and invention again, of the power in his chosen discipline. “The field has changed too much since then,” he said.

“You’re smart, Dad. You can catch up,” Jack said.

Candy got up, took off her goggles and eyed the two of them. “Really? Those old toys? When are you going to grow up?” she said to Ian.

“They’re not toys,” Jack said.

Candy projected a haughty laugh in the boy’s direction.

Jack’s face darkened. “He can do it if he wants. You can do anything, if you want it badly enough.” He looked to his father for support.

Candy bent forward and laughed harder. “The crazy ideas you put in that boy’s head,” she said to Ian.

“They’re not crazy!” Jack walked up to her and put his finger in her face. “Tell the truth!”

She stopped laughing and slapped the boy hard across the face.

Jack held his breath, looked at his father.

“That was uncalled for, Candy, don’t you think?” Ian asked her.

“No,” she said, finally taking her eyes off of Jack and heading for the kitchen. “It’s long overdue. And there’s something else that’s overdue. I’m calling Larry and you’re accepting that job. You know you’re not getting anything else in this job market. Nothing that pays nearly as well. Nothing that a washed up old bag like you would qualify for.” She took her mobile screen out of a kitchen drawer, unrolled it and tapped it quickly.

“I hate you!” Jack yelled and ran out of the room. He slammed the door to his room behind him.

“I haven’t made my decision,” Ian said.

“Oh yes, you have. It’s ringing.” She held it out in his direction and lifted her eyebrows in a manner that made Ian want to punch her in the face over and over again.

Jack appeared in the living room. “Sorry, Dad.”

Ian smiled at him. “What for?”

Jack looked at the floor.

“What about me, you little brat? What about my apology,” Candy said to Jack, the screen still ringing in her hand. “Hmm?”

“Jack,” Ian said. “Just don’t respond. Let it go.”

“But I hate her!” He ran to his room and slammed the door again.

Ian sat back and crossed his arms. When will I escape this? I’m about ready to go to work digging ditches. Maybe self-employed. I’m about ready to jump out of this window.

“Hey there— No, not right— Someone wants to speak with you.” She walked over to Ian, that look on her face again: you better do what I tell you, or else. And Ian knew what that else was: the silent treatment, nasty looks, snide comments and, inevitably, physical violence. He had a new one to add to the list: proxy-punish him through Jack. That was the worst one.

“Well?” she said. She tapped the screen.

“Ready to come back to reality, buddy?” Larry’s voice echoed throughout the tiny living room.

Ian stood up, smiled at his wife and took the screen. He walked to the square picture window, pushed open the side window and tossed the screen out of their twenty-third floor window.

&“Be there tomorrow& at 7 AM,” Larry said. He stood in the doorway of the master bedroom and looked down on Ian.

Ian lay on his bed, his hands behind his neck, deep in thought, his eyes closed, a delicate Bach violin sonata playing from his screen on the nightstand.

Larry cleared his throat. “We can drive down together, tonight.”

Ian lay still on the bed, his mind deep into robotics. He needed a practical idea. Something that would actually be useful to people, that could fit into their daily rhythms. Not just a prototype but something that will work. What about the software though?

“Did you hear me—” Larry started.

“How dare you!” Candy appeared in the doorway and Ian pried open an eye to catch her expression. There was more worry than anger there. He chuckled inwardly. “Larry drove all the way up here at my request to take you down and get you situated in the only job that is going to provide for your family for the foreseeable future.”

Ian yawned.

Candy turned and put a hand on Larry’s bicep. “I don’t know what is going on with him.”

“It’s okay, don’t you worry your pretty little self,” he said and touched her face. “We’ll sit down on the couch and chat until he—”

Ian took a deep breath. His hands trembled. He felt like he was floating just above the surface of the bed. This was a big decision. There would be no turning back from it. He had to burn this bridge down to the ground. He had to nuke it, otherwise the temptation would return. They would wear him down.

Candy and Larry stood side by side at the entrance to the master bedroom, their expectant eyes on Ian.

“I’m not taking the job, Larry. I wouldn’t work with you again, not for anything. You’re a liar, a slacker and an all-around bastard.”

“He doesn’t mean it,” Candy said to Larry.

“Oh, but I do. Furthermore, Larry, you are not welcome in my home anymore.”

Candy’s mouth hung open. She was a deer in the headlights.

“I will not tolerate you putting your fat fucking hands on my wife or my daughter anymore.”

“How dare you!” Larry said in a low tone of voice. “After everything I have done for you…” He huffed and swung his head around like a hyperventilating owl.

“You may now get out. As for you,” he said to Candy, “and the kids, all of those spending cuts and other changes we discussed go into effect immediately. Hand over your credit cards and account logins.”

“No!” Candy screamed. “You can’t do that!”

Larry studied Ian with a sense of calm wonder, the edges of a smile pulling at his cheeks. He put his hand on Candy’s shoulder and massaged it. “Relax, girl. I know this guy. He pulls stuff like this. I remember back in college when he was hurting and I found the El job for him. Remember that, baby?”

Candy’s face slackened with exhaustion. “I just can’t take this anymore. It’s not fair.”

Ian closed his eyes. There was nothing to be gained from further interaction.

“And he took it. He eventually took it, because he’s a smart man who provides for you and the kids. Isn’t that right?” Larry asked.

She nodded and caught her breath. “He better do the right thing,” she said in Ian’s direction. “And he better do it right now.”

“Or what?” Ian opened his eyes, a smile of amusement breaking onto his face.

“Or you’re out of here. I don’t keep useless, lazy dogs around for my own entertainment.”

Ian chuckled.

Michael appeared behind his mother. “He wants to punish us, Mom. He’s disappointed with Stacy and me because we’re not scientists,” he said with air quotes, “like him. We’re lazy good-for-nothings, isn’t that right, Dad?” Michael stomped away and slammed the front door behind him.

“Listen, guys,” said Larry, “this isn’t necessary. Ian is too old to start a new career. He hasn’t even looked at a robot in twenty years.” He laughed. “Come on, this guy is washed up.”

Ian turned his head and glared at Larry.

Larry held his hands out in front of him. “It’s true, buddy. What can I say? You’re old. You can’t get another job, not unless you want to fall overboard in the Bering Sea hunting for the last few crab. But you have a big family here to take care of. They love you. You can’t do anything else.”

Jack came and sat on the bed next to Ian, a look of doubt and pity on his face.

“Have you been listening to this?” Ian asked the boy.

Jack nodded. He reached for his father’s hand.

“Let’s face it, buddy, this is the end for you. Your last hope is to keep working with me. And,” Larry added before taking a look at his watch, “you have just six hours to stop tempting fate.”

Ian looked at Jack and then Candy. They care about me. Larry didn’t have to get me that job. He didn’t have to take me along. Maybe this is the right call. I can keep working on her in my spare time. Ian rolled over and closed his eyes. He had to give in and take the job, that was certain. But he silently begged for just a little more time as a free man. I’ll tell them in the afternoon, after a quick nap.

4

What if? The thought raged in Ian’s mind. What if he failed? What if he succeeded? What would success even look like? He couldn’t imagine it. What if they had to move apartments? Could they get another one like it? What if all three kids had to share one room? Stacy wouldn’t like it. For that matter, neither would Michael, even though he was hardly ever there. Even Jack prized his alone time.

Ian opened his eyes and looked up. A pale, contorted rectangle of light flickered on the ceiling. He glimpsed the moon outside. What if they ended up in the street? What if Candy left him and took all the kids? What if he was all alone?

It’s not worth it. The risks are too high. He rolled over. Candy was not there. All-night virtual reality games again? He frowned and shook his head. There was a dead end. Depression, despair, isolation, everything fake. What did they see in it?

[_Enough. _]A surge of exasperated energy hit him. Ian swung his legs out of bed, tightening his abdominals and landing on his feet like a ninja ready for a surprise fight.

A pang of doubt hit him. He stood at the windowsill and looked out at the abandoned alley below. You’re not an inventor. You’re a train engineer. You supervise machines. You don’t make them. You don’t even fix them. He collapsed, cross-legged to the floor, facing his nightstand.

Desperate for some distraction, he opened the bottom drawer and pulled out the first thing he touched.

It was his high school yearbook. He flipped it open with a mix of apprehension and nostalgia. He braced himself against any unhappy reminder.

There it was on page one: a note from Francesca. “You’re a great inventor. I’ve learned so much from you. I know I’ll be using your inventions someday, and thinking of you, no matter where I am.”

Wow. It all flooded back to him. He stood up, the yearbook under his arm. He walked into the living room, sat down at his workstation and noted the time: 3 AM. Push through it.

He yawned.

&Jack nestled& against his chest and Ian adjusted his right arm to support the boy’s head.

With the left, he tapped away at the dusty old keyboard in the living room. On the screen, he looked at his work so far.

It’s shit, all shit. Unoriginal, won’t work. An amateur’s plaything. A delusion. Ian felt his insides collapsing on each other in a self-defeating race to the bottom.

The boy sighed deeply and exhaled in a stutter. He was at peace, happy in the arms of his father. I have to do this. If not for me then at least for Jack.

&“We voted& and you’re out,” Candy whispered.

Ian stood up from the living room workstation and turned around. He stretched, then yawned.

In front of him stood Candy, Michael and Stacy. Stacy looked at the floor, Michael obsessively scratched his scalp and Candy glared at him with her arms crossed.

Ian brought his wrist up in front of his face: 5 PM. Is it that late? He looked up at them. “Did you say something?”

Michael spoke up. “We voted, the three of us, and we decided that you have to leave. You’re not contributing to the household and you’re trying to control us.”

A burst of laugher escaped Ian.

The three stared at him steadily.

Ian looked at them dubiously. “This is my house. My work paid for this. It paid for every gram of food that went in your mouths.” He pointed at Stacy and Michael.

Michael turned away. Stacy tapped her foot against the floor and continued to look down.

“This is a democratic household, Dad,” said Michael. “We’re occupying it, therefore we have a voice. And we’re using it.” He shrugged. “I know your capitalist pig asshole point—”

“Michael, shut up,” said Candy. “He is still your father.”

Michael threw up his hands. He opened his mouth to speak but choked off the sound.

“Why don’t you three go somewhere else, if I bother you that much?” Ian asked. “Go live on a farm out near Amish country, like I did when I was your age.”

“Where are we going to go, Daddy?” Stacy asked. Her voice reached a high pitch, cracked and almost didn’t return. “Who do we know? What do we have? We have no family, no cousins, no money and no Amish farm.” She sobbed.

Michael put his arm around her and she pushed him away. “Fuck off,” she whispered.

“Who are you going to throw out next? Jack? Is that the kind of family this is?” Ian asked.

“It’s a democratic household!” Michael yelled. “Respect our will!”

“If it’s so democratic, how come I didn’t get a vote?”

“You can either leave,” Candy said in a low voice, “or we can go live with Larry.”

Rage boiled up within Ian. His nerves tingled and his head twitched. “How dare you, after all I have done for you.”

Candy turned away.

Stacy ran to him, pressed her head briefly against his chest and then shuffled to her room.

“What’s important is that he’s leaving. I’ll take charge—” Michael started.

Candy slapped him. “I’m in charge of this home and this ends now.”

Michael’s face showed the inner struggle between hate and hurt. He put his index finger in her face. “Violence is not helpful. I’m on your side.” He went to the window and looked out, his back turned to his parents.

“Get some things and get out,” Candy whispered.

“Just because of the job?” Ian asked her.

“It’s complicated.”

Ian shook his head. “Jack comes with me.”

“He needs his mother.” She pushed him back into the wall, knocking the computer screen off the desk. “Get out! Get out!” she screamed.

&The elevator dinged& and Ian stepped out into the chilly bare cement hallway. He turned right and walked down the narrow path. He carried a change of clothes and the workstation in a backpack. In a box, he had a mug, some instant ramen bowls, near-coffee and an electric pot.

He walked through the boiler room door and immediately stepped on someone.

“Close that door!” a familiar voice yelled.

“That you, Hector?” Ian asked the dark room.

“Who that?” Hector asked.

“Ian. From 2304.”

“You, too?”

Ian was silent. Why are there people in the boiler room?

“We’re full up, man. Got sick people and everything,” Hector said.

Ian found the light switch, flicked it and a dozen men groaned at once.

“Turn that light off!” said one.

“Trying to sleep here,” said another.

Ian glimpsed another one snoring. There wasn’t much space around the central boiler unit – a great black cauldron – but it was filled from wall to wall with sleeping men in their underwear. He knew these men. He’d seen them around. They were his neighbors.

“You can not—” Hector appeared next to him, flipped off the light and stepped outside, pushing Ian along ahead of him.

Ian looked at him, disbelieving.

“Find somewhere else,” Hector said. “No more room here.” He turned to re-enter.

Ian grabbed his shoulder. “Did they lose their apartments?”

“You didn’t see us here.” Hector closed the door gently behind him.

Ian stood in the hallway puzzling it out. It made no sense. A dozen men wall-to-wall in that hot box. They couldn’t all have been thrown out by their wives, too. Or could they?

Ian walked to the other side of the basement, through narrow and poorly-lit cement corridors to the storage boxes. He found number 2304. As a four-bedroom apartment, their storage box was considerably larger than the others, many of which weren’t more than a locker.

He fumbled for the key in his pocket and ran through his options. After the boiler room and the storage box, it was… the street. I can make it work, but it won’t be fun.

He caught himself. The street? How did I fall so fast? All I did was save a baby. What did I do? A thread of doubt paralyzed him. He sat down on the dusty floor next to the storage box door. He sat there awhile, suffering under the weight of the self-doubt, debating between staying the course and begging Larry and Candy to take him back.

Ian’s mind wandered. Jack was grown up now, ready for college. Michael and Candy were giving him advice. No point in college, they said. Only do what’s good enough. Stick to the beaten path. Don’t take risks. Set aside your dreams.

Ian stood up, inserted the key into the storage box door and opened it.

Metal boxes fell out. One hit him on the head and knocked him back. Another pair fell on his foot.

Ian reeled, a thread of blood trickling into his eye. He hopped on one foot as the sheer physical pain overwhelmed him. “Goddamnit!” he yelled. He limped back to the storage box and looked in. It was full from floor to ceiling with metal boxes, cement bags and blood-red bricks.

Where the hell did all this come from? And how am I going to get it out!

&Ian leaned back& and his chair squeaked. He was satisfied but hesitant to congratulate himself quite yet. He was making progress.

It took him three days, a scraped shin and three jammed fingers but he cleared the storage box. Inside now there was a hammock with a sleeping bag, a wobbly glass-topped desk, his fully-unrolled screen on its stand, an electric kettle and a box with his near-coffee and ramen.

But that was the easy part. The hard part was the robot. It wasn’t coming together. His old prototypes were lined up behind his screen. They taunted him. All you can make is antiquated toys, they said. You’re a washed up woodcarver making rough-hewn wooden ducks in your basement. That’s all. You eat ramen, drink near-coffee and every shit burns.

But he wasn’t giving up. It was momentum that kept him going, and the desperation of not knowing what else to try.

He started to make himself another cup of instant near-coffee but instead headed outside. It was only two steps from his chair to the door. He locked and closed it behind him, first patting his pocket to be sure he still had the key. I’ll read Jack a story and then straight back to work.

A chill wind blew in the sub-level. He tightened the scarf around his neck and pulled his winter hat lower, over his ears. He sneezed, then sneezed again.

Upstairs, he tapped on the flimsy front door of his apartment and entered. Candy stood in the living room in see-through purple lingerie. Her pert, artificial breasts peeked through the sheer material. The top ended just at the top of her legs. She wore nothing else.

Ian stopped hard. The old bag still looked alright. But what was she doing dressed like this. The hairs stood up on his arms and the nerves in his legs tingled.

Candy stopped and stared at him, her eyes nonchalant but her body tense.

“Is that how you dress in front of the kids now?” Ian asked.

“Jack is in bed,” she said.

“Where’s my daughter?”

“Out.”

“Where?” Ian demanded.

She shrugged her shoulders.

I’m gone a week and already this.

“Aren’t you going to ask about Michael, too? Or is he a lost case to you?” Candy asked.

Ian said nothing and made for Jack’s room instead. Before he turned the corner to enter the boy’s room, he heard a voice. He reached the entrance, and stopped.

A soft light illuminated the boy. Jack was in bed, a smile on his face.

Larry sat next to him in his underwear, reading the boy a story.

Ian stood, dumb, and watched, unable to process it. His boy. Larry reading to him. Larry in his underwear. His wife practically naked. What did I interrupt?

“Daddy!” Jack jumped out of bed and ran to hug him.

Ian picked him up and hugged him, the boy’s long legs dangling almost to the floor. “Whatcha been up to, kiddo?”

“Unc—” The boy paused. “Larry was reading me Where the Wild Things Are.”

“Good choice, Larry,” Ian said without looking at him.

“Ian—” Larry started.

Ian held a hand out to silence the tighty-whiteyed invader.

“You should come down and visit me sometime. I’ve been working on my robot.”

“Is it ready yet?” Jack asked.

“It’s a big job.”

“How much longer will it take?”

“It’ll go faster if you visit me every day!” He smiled and set Jack down. “You should get to bed now, kiddo.”

“Aw, Dad, but we have to save the world! Just one game!”

“Let’s do that tomorrow after school. You come down and get me,” Ian said. His mind wandered to Larry. And who was Stacy with? He brooded on all the things that could go wrong for Stacy: mistreatment and emotional hurt, staying out all night and screwing school up further, rape, pregnancy, sex slavery, never seeing her again. His forehead erupted in sweat and he felt the sudden urge to run out of there and call the girl. After great effort, he stopped himself.

“Dad?” Jack was still in his arms.

Ian set him down.

“I love you, Dad. Did you hear me?”

Ian smiled and the panic in him eased a tiny bit. “I love you too, buddy. Let me tuck you in.” He shot a glare at Larry that, he hoped, would say everything he felt: get the hell away from the only child I have left!

And put some freaking pants on!

Larry hustled out of there and into the master bedroom. He closed the door behind him.

Ian tucked the boy in, a vision of Larry with Candy, Candy with Larry constantly intruding into his mind.

He soon found himself in the living room. Candy sat on the couch. “It’s been going on awhile, has it? Not something new?” he asked her. He looked at the floor, his back half-turned to her. He hurt but he also felt disgust.

“Don’t tell me you’re surprised?” she asked.

Ian’s lip curled. Of course I’m surprised! There was a lot he wanted to say but one thought in particular jumped to the top of his mind. He knew he should stop it. It wouldn’t help. But it needed to be said. “You whore. Twenty years. I’ve taken great care of you. I gave you everything.”

She put one foot under her leg and dangled the other one off the edge of the couch. Her legs weren’t young anymore but they were still smooth and well-shaped.

“And for Larry? I gave you more credit than that.”

She pressed her lips together and said nothing. She looked around the room then yawned. Still the foot dangled and shook from side to side.

She’s over me. Doesn’t care about my hurt. That’s what she wants me to think, at least. I’m not wanted here. I’ve been freaking replaced! Jack, though, he I can’t abandon.

Ian plodded out of the apartment, closing the door gently behind him. Once at his workstation again, he put a full pot to heat for near-coffee and prepared to spend his last few dollars on off-the-shelf parts. It was time to build a prototype. This would be an all-nighter.

Then his energy collapsed. I can’t do this. Upstairs, right now, his best friend was laying his wife of twenty years. His kids didn’t need him. And he lived in a frigid basement closet. Who was he to invent something useful? He couldn’t hold a job or keep a family. He laid his head down on the icy metal desk and closed his eyes to shut out his inadequacy, to go anywhere but here. To be anyone, but Ian Blake, Common Failure.

5

“Given up yet, Dad?”

The words bounced around in Ian’s unconscious brain. He jerked his head up off the frigid glass top of his desk and looked at the screen in front of him. A confused jumble of incoherent thoughts jockeyed for position in his mind. His eyes unfocused and he tried to remember where he was and what he was doing here. An icy breeze hit his neck and he shivered.

“Dad?” Jack asked.

Ian turned. “Oh, hey,” he mumbled. “What are you doing down here?”

Jack shrugged. “Can I sit in the hammock?”

“Gotta be careful. It’s easy to fall out.” Ian learned that lesson the hard way the week before. He climbed up on the contraption without looking, lost his balance and it rotated around, fast. His head quickly ended up where his feet should have been: slamming into the rough concrete floor. Will I ever sleep in a bed again? Or will I always lay down to sleep, one eye open and worrying about falling to the unforgiving floor below?

Jack eased himself up into the hammock in a sitting position perpendicular to the length of the thin hanging bed. He pushed off the wall behind him and swung, forwards and backwards. The tips of his shoes tapped Ian on the back of his neck.

Ian let it go twice but the third time was the last. “Can you not swing in that? There’s not enough room and you’re kicking me in the head.”

Jack stopped pushing and gradually slowed to a halt.

“How’s school?” Ian asked.

“Eh,” Jack said.

“How are Stacy and Michael?”

“Never around,” Jack answered.

“What are they doing?”

Jack shrugged. “Wanna play some save the world?”

“Later. Definitely.”

Jack’s head sagged forward.

“I finished a prototype,” Ian said. Pride rose within him and he suppressed a strong desire to burst out laughing. I really did it. I think. Or was it a dream? He scraped his chair across the floor a half-meter to the box next to his desk. It was a simple, dusty plastic box, the same kind used to ship goods everywhere – the kinds of good Ian could no longer afford, the same kinds of goods Candy wanted so badly that she shacked up with Larry. Yeah, those goods. The ones he gave up to pursue this crazy dream.

He pulled the upside down box off and there it was. It really existed. He took a swig of an icy near-coffee leftover from last night and with a grimy pair of splintering chopsticks he took a greedy pair of mouthfuls of ramen noodles. They were cold, too. He shivered but gulped down the noxious, if nutritious, concoction nonetheless.

“Stacy has a boyfriend,” Jack said.

Ian gritted his teeth. “Am I going to like him?”

“He’s a drug dealer.”

Ian collapsed into himself a little. “Mom have anything to say about this?”

“She’s out with Larry all the time.”

Ian let out a sigh. “Well, what do you think of my robot?”

Jack let out a scream and jumped off the hammock. He stood still and watched the wall.

Ian turned and spotted it. The careless dolts in the boiler room were proving their wives right. They left their coffee cups, beer bottles and burrito wrappers where they fell. They didn’t clean their clothes or their floors. Now they were reproducing, the dirty little buggers.

He took his sneaker off his foot, lunged and slammed it against the wall where the cockroach waited. He held his shoe against the wall, pushing hard, waiting to hear the telltale crack of its carapace, but nothing. Damned shoe is too soft to kill these super-roaches.

He removed the shoe and it fell to the ground. It was only stunned. He grabbed his ramen bowl, scooped up its twitching body and carried it around the corner to the boiler room trash pile.

To live in a boiler room carries no shame. But to live like a pig in a boiler room… Ian curled his upper lip in disgust. He dropped the ramen cup on the top of the pile and returned to his box. How much longer will this go on?

Back in his office, Jack studied the robot. About one and a half meters tall, it looked like an undernourished Mexican mom: round in the middle, short arms, short legs and a perfectly round, expressionless face.

“The arms extend,” Ian said from the doorway, “and there are three elbows.”

“Three elbows! Three funny bones, too?” Jack turned and eyed his dad, a mischievous smile on his face. Jack studied the robot further and his father studied him. “It’s kind of short.”

“The legs extend to fit whatever surface you need it to work at. It can bend over, too.”

Yeah, Mom likes to do that.”

“What?”

“Never mind,” Jack said. “What does it do?”

“It’s a domestic robot. It does everything women like Mom don’t want to do. It’ll make your bed for you and even prepare hot cocoa.”

“What’s hot cocoa?” Jack asked.

“Hot chocolate.”

Jack turned around, his face a question mark. “But, chocolate melts.”

“Doesn’t mom give you hot chocolate sometimes? We must have had it at Christmas or something?”

Jack shook his head.

“Well, we have to remedy this! Let’s take it upstairs and get you some right now!” Ian grabbed the robot and carried it under his arm. He locked the storage box door behind them and hit the elevator up button.

“Isn’t it going to be hard, you know, carrying it everywhere?” Jack asked.

Ian laughed, just a little too loudly. It’s the isolation. I’ve been alone too long. “It’ll walk. Don’t worry. Just keep in mind that it’s a prototype. It’ll do the job but it won’t be pretty or perfect.”

Upstairs, the apartment had a new door. Ian marveled at it. Jack produced a key and carefully opened it.

“New,” Ian said.

“Uncle Larry,” Jack said.

Ian stood in the doorway, examining the intricate pattern of inlaid rectangles in the door. It had three locks, and they looked solid. He felt his pants sliding down his hips. He grabbed them and cinched up his belt another notch. Why didn’t we get a new door before?

The living room was all wrong. There was an L-shaped, black leather couch in the far corner, a giant screen against the wall opposite the longer side of the couch and, in the middle of the room, a long, thin coffee table with tall, white flowers in a crystal vase.

“Wrong apartment, buddy. Come on.” Ian stepped into the hallway and searched for apartment numbers on the doors.

Jack turned and smiled.

Ian returned to the doorway and paused. “No. Larry?”

Jack nodded, a look of pained happiness on his face. “He bought me some new clothes, too.”

Ian walked into his home and closed the door behind him. It didn’t feel like home anymore. It was his, but it wasn’t. It was surreal. No, it was wrong. He wanted to be angry, but he felt relief to have escaped his concrete box, if only for a little while.

He sat down on the black, leather couch and set the robot on the floor. The leather was cool, supple, so smooth. The cushions beckoned him in deeper and he reclined. After so long in that cold concrete box, this was decadent. He closed his eyes and let himself sink deeper into the ample cushioning.

“Dad!” Jack said. “I thought you were going to show me your robot.”

“Of course,” Ian whispered. He forced himself up. His lower back snapped back into place and his neck cracked when he twisted it from side to side. That was good. I needed that. But too much is dangerous. Too much and I might not make it back. “Did you make your bed yet today?”

Jack looked at him sheepishly. They headed for the bedroom. The bed was indeed a bit of a mess, with the pillow in the middle, the sheet and blanket pushed down towards the bottom.

“Are you brushing your teeth?” Jack asked.

Jack’s face went blank and he shrugged.

“Three times a day, kiddo. Growing new teeth is a pain in the neck – literally.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Ian put the robot on the floor and turned it on. Its eyes flickered red and the sound of tiny motors whirred. Its legs and arms extended and its head rotated from side to side. “It’s performing a self-test,” Ian said.

“Did you program it to do that or did it figure it out on its own?” Jack asked.

“I did that.”

“Ready,” the robot said.

“What’s it called?” Jack asked.

“Robot, make the bed.”

Jack put his hand to his chin. “What about Maria? Can we call it Maria?”

The robot stood unmoving, observing the scene.

“It’s broken,” Jack said. He turned his back on it and sat down on his bed.

“Jack! Get off the bed! It can’t make the bed with you on it.”

Jack jumped up and shot a glance at his father. His eyebrows formed a sharp V over his eyes and his mouth was a deep frown. “Geez, you don’t have to be a jerk.” He stormed out of the room.

Ian ran after him. He took two steps and his head went light. A ringing started in his ears and he lost his balance. What the hell is wrong with me! He stopped to catch his breath. “Jack, I’m sorry. Please. Come back. It’s just…”

“I feel like you’re not even my dad anymore!” Jack yelled from across the apartment. “You never visit me. You never play with me. You don’t even know what happened to me!”

Behind him, the whirs and squeaks of the robot meant that it was still working. If it’s doing something, then that’s something. He took a deep breath and gathered his strength. “I’m working on the robot. You told me I should do this, you know. I’m following my dream. And I’m not just doing it—”

“Shut up! It’s a lie. You hate me, I know it. You don’t love me, that’s why you left.”

Choose your words carefully, Ian. “This is between your mother and I. This has nothing to do with you. If anything, this is my fault. It has nothing to do with you.”

Jack was silent.

“I love you, Jack. Please come on back.” Ian waited. “Are you okay?”

“Yes!” came the reply.

“Don’t you want to see how the ro— Maria did?” Silence was his only response. “Please?”

“Alright!” Jack trudged out from the kitchen and stopped in front of his dad. “Why are you on the floor? You don’t look so good, Dad.”

“Fine, sure, just help me up.”

“You want something to eat? Larry went shopping and bought too much food. You can even take some with you.”

The thought of living off of Larry’s largesse both shamed and intrigued him. Ian wanted to pay his own way, make it on his own steam. But Larry owed him. Larry stole from him. He stole credit for saving the baby. He took his job from him, his pride, his wife and maybe even Jack. The realization sunk in. He could lose Jack. His intestines twisted tighter. He shook his head. “Maybe later.”

Back in Jack’s room, they surveyed Maria’s handiwork. Maria sat in the corner, shrunken to her at-rest size with arms and legs retracted, awaiting new orders.

“She sort of got it right… in her own way,” Jack said.

The pillow was at the top of the bed. It was squarely in the middle of the unpretentious, child-sized bed. The sheet and blanket were presumably done right as well, since the surface of the bed was flat. But the fitted sheet, it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t on the bottom, where it was supposed to be. It was pulled tight over the top of the bed. The pillow and the rest lay snugly shrink-wrapped underneath it. Ian tapped the bed. “Tight as a drum! Not too shabby, Maria!”

Jack laughed. “Dad! It’s not right!”

“She’s still learning. I think she did alright. Could have been worse, you know,” Ian said.

Jack put his hands on his hips and frowned.

“Maria, clean the living room.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. With the new couch—”

Ian silenced him with a wave of his hand. “Do you trust me?”

“She can clean my room.”

Maria beeped a melodic acknowledgment signal and walked to the living room. Her steps were slow and deliberate but almost human-like. She wobbled a little.

Jack moved to follow the robot. Ian stopped him. “Wait, let’s talk.”

Jack pushed against him. “We shouldn’t leave her alone in there.”

“Don’t you trust—” A loud crash and tinkling of little pieces of glass mixed with the gurgle of water interrupted Ian.

They ran for the living room. The coffee table was bare. The flowers lay strewn on the floor in between that leather couch and the table.

“It’s okay,” Ian said. “She’ll clean that up.”

The front door opened. Larry and Candy walked in, their arms filled with expensive shopping bags. Some were purple with white cursive writing, others displayed rotating images of well-built men and women doing expensive things. Candy was magnificent. Her blond hair was done up in large curls that hung all around her face. Her cheeks sparkled, her eyes were bright and her chest seemed a tad bigger. Larry looked younger and his paunch had grown.

Ian could only stare.

Larry pinched her butt and she squealed before either of them noticed Ian.

“Son, who is this?” Larry asked.

Ian’s mouth hung open. Where did they get all the money for this?

“It’s Ian,” Candy whispered. She took the bags and set them down on the kitchen counter.

“Ian?” Larry asked. “What happened to you?”

Ian shrugged.

“Come look at yourself in the mirror, man.” Larry guided him to the bathroom, first door to the left in the hallway to the bedrooms. He flipped on a light.

The man that stared back at Ian was unfamiliar, even scary. His brown hair hung almost to his shoulders. It was pasty, oily and hung in rigidly straight lines. His face was brown with dark splotches. He ran his hand over his beard. It was scraggly and hung below his chin. His hand came away greasy. His face was thinner.

“You need to pull yourself together, Ian,” Larry said. “This has gone too far.”

Candy screamed. “No, no, no!” Glass tinkled. “Jack!”

Ian pushed past Larry to the living room. “Don’t blame him, that was my fault. How come you’ve never made hot chocolate for him?”

Candy stepped back, a look of disgust on her face.

The robot beeped and made for the kitchen.

“Jack, you are not to let him in again!” Candy yelled. She turned to Ian. “I thought you would be gone by now. I want you out and take that thing with you!”

“It’s the robot I’ve been working on. It’s not too bad.”

“Is that what broke my vase. Do you know how much that thing cost?” Candy asked.

The stove clicked on and the whoosh of burning gas reached them.

“What the hell is that thing doing?” Candy asked.

Ian smiled. “Your job.”

She frowned at him.

Maria beeped in a fast, triple pattern – beep, beep, beep – over and over again.

Ian ran to the kitchen and shuffled through the cabinets. “Where do you keep the hot chocolate?”

Candy ran after him.

Small boxes of pre-packaged food items hit the counter and floor. Tiny candies spilled out. Candy grabbed Ian’s hand and pulled him toward the door. Ian crashed into Maria and some boiling water spilled out onto the matte black metal stovetop.

“Get your hands out of my cabinets!” Candy yelled.

“I just want the hot chocolate. It’s for Jack.”

“Dad,” Jack said from the living room, “I don’t want hot chocolate. Just forget it!”

“No, son,” he started. He struggled to free his hand from Candy’s grasp. He opened another cabinet and a glass jar of lollypops fell out and landed square on Maria’s head.

A light smoke wafted up from Maria’s neck. The water was at a rolling boil now.

“Your robot is smoking,” Candy said.

“Ah ha! Hot chocolate.” He set the box of hot chocolate packets down next to the stove and used his bony behind to nudge Candy out of the way. He got her back to the doorway and they watched.

Maria extended her legs, opened a cabinet and pulled out a white mug with a faded Mickey Mouse on it. She expertly ripped open the paper packet.

Jack appeared behind Ian. “Dad, I don’t want the hot chocolate! Just stop fighting, please.”

Ian held Candy against him, her back to his front. She stopped struggling. He remembered how much he enjoyed being with her, and how much she used to enjoy being with him. He rubbed himself against her. I can fix all of this. With this robot. It’s going to be worth a lot of money.

Maria poured the boiling water expertly into the mug. The steam mixed with the increasing volume of smoke emanating from her neck and now her big, round abdomen as well. The smell of burning plastic reached their noses.

“You should really get it out of here,” Candy whispered.

It righted the pot, not spilling a drop of the remaining boiling water and set it back on the stove. It pulled a teaspoon out of a drawer next to the stove, mixed the water and chocolate powder in a perfect circular motion and beeped once.

Ian smiled and let go of Candy. “See, worked perfectly!” He grabbed the steaming cup of hot chocolate and set it on the breakfast bar.

Jack smiled and approached. He reached a hand out to grab the mug.

Ian felt heat at his back. Candy screamed. He turned. Fire burst from Maria’s chest and the plastic casing melted behind it. Ian froze.

The machine fully extended its arms and legs. It beeped in rapid succession, a shrill cry for aid. Its center section rotated, its arms outstretched. They hit Ian square in the gut and knocked him down.

One hand glanced off of the hot chocolate and sent it flying into the living room. The other smacked the kitchen sink faucet. Water erupted from it into an arced shower that fell precisely into the growing hole in Maria’s chest.

Larry ran out into the hallway. The water shower reduced, then dissipated. Maria was a dead wreck. She didn’t move. The lights in her eyes had flickered out. A small pool of water sloshed around in her electronic insides.

Ian surveyed the scene. Dead robot. Waterlogged kitchen. At least no one had gotten hurt. He turned around and there was Candy. Her fancy curly hairdo was gone. Her hair was soaked. It hung down the sides of her head in straight lines.

“You idiot!” She screamed, “You ruined our house!”

“Well, it’s my house, too,” Ian said.

Larry appeared in the doorway. He shook his head. “Does your robot clean up its own messes?”

Jack cried. Ian turned to look. Larry ran to him and grabbed the boy’s hand.

“Goddamnit!” Larry whispered. “His hand,” he said to Candy.

Ian ran over and grabbed the boy’s hand but Jack pushed him away. He caught a glimpse of crimson, melted skin on the right palm.

“It’s your damned hot chocolate!” Candy screamed. “You burned him with it!”

6

Ian rested his head on his desk in the icy sub-basement. He sighed. “This is a tough decision,” he said, “but I think it’s the right one.”

He raised his head, a relieved smile on his face, and looked into the camera at the top of his screen. “It’s ready!” Ian stood up and did an awkward, frenetic jig then sat back down and pumped his fists. “Yes!”

Contented sighs came through his earbuds and he looked at the video feed in the top right corner of his screen. “Couldn’t have done it without you guys,” Ian said. “Not in a million years.”

“We’re a team, a great team, all of us,” said the foremost of the faces – black faces – with a strange, clipped accent.

“I’m uploading the last video, right now.” Ian clicked a few buttons and moved his open hand around in the air in front of him, palm facing out. The on-screen mouse moved in sync with his hand. He twirled his index finger, punched some fingers forward in a complex motion and nodded. It was done.

“We see it!” said the on-screen face. Joyous yells of pride and satisfaction echoed across the connection.

“You guys are my secret weapon,” Ian mumbled. What a stroke of brilliance. Efficient, hungry and they work cheap, really cheap. Ian watched as prototype Marias of various generations navigated the open, gargantuan work area of his Somalian programming team distributing glasses of champagne.

“Mr. Blake,” said Qasim, their team leader, “how did you do this?”

Ian laughed. “I smuggled it into that shipment of parts for the latest Maria. My gift to you, duty-free.” Ian noticed many of the glasses being ignored on the video feed. “Don’t you—”

“Mr. Blake, sir,” Qasim said after a pause to look around the room, “we thank you for your gesture but Somalia is a Muslim country. Alcohol is strictly forbidden.”

Oh no. I’ve heard about this.

“And the authorities monitor all video communications—”

The feed disconnected. “Oh my God,” Ian whispered. Did I just get my programmers raided? His mind raced to images of Muslim countries and beheadings. He sat in silence and beat himself up over what he had done.

Behind him, the latest Maria delivered a snack of fresh Granny Smith apple slices perfectly smeared with organic peanut butter to Jack, who lay in a hammock playing a game on his screen.

“Put the pillow under your head, Master Jack,” his Maria said. “You will be more comfortable that way.”

Ian turned around to watch the two interact. Pride in his achievement surged and did battle with his regret over the champagne.

Jack adjusted the pillow so it was under his neck and head. “Thanks Maria,” he mumbled. He picked an apple slice off the white tray, which now sat on his chest and stuffed it into his mouth.

“Good?” Ian asked.

Jack set his screen aside. “Are you done?” he asked through a full mouth. He swallowed. “Can I tell you something?”

Ian nodded.

“This Maria is really good, Dad. She learned how to make the apple slices just the way I taught her and she never forgets anything I tell her, unlike Mom.”

Ian contemplated his creation. She was taller and fuller now compared to that pathetic first model. He’d built failsafes into her. And her outsides were slimmer but cushioned. She almost looked like a real woman.

“She even sounds like Mom,” said Jack. “She’s like Mom 2.0.” Jack laughed and slammed another apple slice into his mouth.

“Master Jack, I have a new game recommendation for you,” Maria said.

“Alright!” Jack turned to his dad. “She’s really great at picking out games I like. You should teach her to pick movies, too.”

That’s certainly doable. As long as the Somalis survive. He winced.

Jack set his screen down. He sat up and looked at his dad. “How’s your…?” He indicated Ian’s stomach.

Ian nodded. “Healing.”

“Was it worth it?” Jack gave him a probing, uncertain look, as if he at once felt sorry for his father but genuinely wanted to know if the sacrifice had justified itself.

Ian nodded. “Without that money, I was stuck: no more raw materials, no quantum chips and definitely not the programmers.” Ian mentally crossed his fingers that he would still have that team. Maybe the lost feed was just a glitch. It was Somalia after all.

Jack nodded.

“But I don’t want you doing anything crazy like that.”

“Why not?” Jack asked without taking his eyes off his screen.

“I could have died! What if my other one fails? What if you need one?”

“God gave us two kidneys, Dad. Maybe he meant for us to sell one, you know, when things are rough,” Jack said.

Ian laughed and shook his head. The thoughts this guy comes up with. He couldn’t decide whether to congratulate the kid for his creativity or rebuke him for such an insane idea.

His screen rang in mid-thought. He saw who was calling and his stomach jumped. He felt suddenly hot, thirsty and with a developing need to sit on the toilet. But he couldn’t do any of those things. “This is the call. Quiet, okay?”

“I’ll go upstairs.”

“No. Stay. Just, you know.” With a twirl of his finger, Ian accepted the connection request from Fyoodle, inc. Next to the 3D video box, responses to his latest video diary poured in. Ian was desperate to ramp up production now, while the demand among potential early adopters was high.

“Good day to you, Ian Blake. I am Eric Weinberg, CEO of Fyoodle, inc.” The other faces identified themselves as well.

“Hi everybody,” Ian said. “A real pleas—”

“Ian, compadre, I want to get right down to it because I respect you, your time and, of course, your whole ethos.” He waved his hands in front of his face in a random, wavy pattern. “We want to buy Maria outright. We want your girl – bad!”

“I definitely want to partner with you, or with somebody big like you. You guys can roll out production fast and keep the end user cost low, right?”

“Well, Ian, it’s…” He turned around to look at the other participants on the call and laughed. “It’s a complex thing, man, and I sure as hell don’t have all the details. But, yeah! That’s the idea. You bet.” He cleared his throat. “We’re thinking six.”

Ian furrowed his brow. “Six?”

“Works for you?”

“Six what?”

“Six billion, of course, US, payable in bank deposit, cash, bitcoin, Funation credits, whatever works for you, man! We’re open-minded people over here.”

“What about the royalty?”

“No, Ian, we’re buying you out. We want to own your girl there. That’s how much we love her.”

Ian froze. He wanted a percentage of every sale. Maria and her tech could sell for decades. The intellectual property the Somalian programmers created, his design, even the name, it could last for centuries in one form or another. If he took this deal, they could lock him out of all future growth. They could profit forever and Ian would be left with a measly six billion.

But if he turned them down, he might not get another deal. Ian’s self-doubt tugged at him. A domestic robot. That’s not exactly an original idea. A dozen hungry inventors just like him could be working on the same thing. They could even have better products, if they weren’t too busy cashing their basic income checks.

Fyoodle might even be in talks with some of them!

Sweat careened down his forehead and onto the back of his neck. He looked back and saw Jack. He’d fought so hard, sacrificed so much. This might be his one shot. He couldn’t blow it. Jack was counting on him.

But if he sold low, Jack would know. He might not realize it now, at age ten, but he’d eventually know. And he would rightly lose all respect for his father. To deliver up such magnificent tech as Maria and then to sell out so cheaply. Ian winced at the thought of it.

Ian cleared his throat and looked back at Jack once more. The boy smiled at him and gave him a thumbs up. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I need to remain in the picture. I want two percent of all gross sales, off the top.”

Eric’s face turned dark. He frowned and groaned.

&There was& silence on the line for a full three minutes. Eric faced the conference table with his back turned to Ian. The other people’s lips moved but they were pixelated. Ian couldn’t decipher anything.

People started to leave. First an older man. He looked at the camera, then walked out. Then a woman.

“Are they going for it, Dad?” Jack asked.

Ian muted his audio input, turned to Jack and covered the side of his mouth that might be seen on camera. He didn’t have a fancy pixelator. But he wanted one. “I think I screwed up,” Ian whispered.

Jack stopped his game and looked at him, his eyes big. “Don’t worry, Dad, somebody else will buy Maria, even if they don’t.” He unpaused his game and started making tiny exploding noises again. “You have failed, Dendron!” he whispered.

The mouths unpixelated and Eric turned around. His was was all downward movement. His forehead was a mass of falling wrinkles. His eyebrows pushed down and furrowed. He was frowning. He put his hands in front of his face, palms facing each other and opened his mouth.

I was so close. I could have said yes and had those six billion in my pocket. I would have been famous as the inventor of Maria, Fyoodle’s latest and most popular robot. That could have led to any number of jobs – good jobs, maybe even a job with Fyoodle. And definitely no more Larry in my life – ever again. Ian kicked himself over and over. You freaking idiot.

“You see, Ian…” His face went sideways. He pushed his hands together and pulled them apart again. “The numbers, well, we have to study them. But we can do at least one point five percent of gross.” His frown intensified. “Does that work for you, my friend?”

Behind his eyes, Ian contained nuclear explosions of joy. He turned away, rubbed his eyes with the palm of his hand and cleared his throat. He couldn’t help it. The relief and joy exploded across his face and he smiled. “In principle, that is in the right ballpark,” he said.

Eric’s face brightened. “That’s good. Very good. I am glad to hear that. We all are. We like Maria and are very interested in making this work. Now, just keep in mind that our first offer is six billion up front, in your pocket right now. I don’t know what your situation is, Ian, but a lot of people would really benefit from that kind of cash infusion at a time like this.”

Ian nodded. He was wary.

“Whereas,” Eric continued, “this proposed one point five—”

“Or two,” Ian said.

“Or two,” Eric said, nodding, “percent sharing arrangement could take months, or even years, to pay out, since we need to study Maria and almost certainly implement some optimizations—”

“Optimizations?” Ian asked.

“Well, yes, Ian, we have a huge line of products and Maria could be our domestic ambassador. What if, for example, our customers could read their email using Maria? What if Maria could transform into a four-legged pack mule – robotic, of course – and carry things for you, heavy things?”

Ian thought that one over. “Maria? A pack mule? Maria is a graceful, attractive homemaker. Not a pack mule!”

Eric held one hand up in front of his face. Snapping noises came across the line and the team behind him flew into feverish motion. “Okay, don’t worry, we’ll surrender to you on that idea. You’re the boss, Ian. Maria is your girl. It just an idea off the top of my head to show you how we would like to integrate Maria into our world-class product lineup. Why, she will be…” He looked down, then quickly up again and smiled. “Maria could be our special envoy to the world. Why, she would speak to the very soul of our mission: someone who cares for you, caters to your wishes—”

“That sounds more like my Maria,” Ian said.

“Okay,” said Eric, visibly relieved. The people behind him leaned back and talked with each other. “Now, we’ve looked over your documents and we just have a couple questions. How is Maria powered?”

Ian leaned back. “Maria?”

The robot behind him whirred into action. It approached him from behind. “Yes, darling.”

Ian blushed. Eric looked away and the edges of his mouth crept upwards.

“Maria, tell these fine gentlemen how you are powered.”

Maria bent over and put her face into range of the camera. “I use motion power, solar power and grid power. I can even be fitted with an experimental wind power add-on. I can go for months, possibly even years in certain areas of the planet, without needing to connect to the grid. In fact, I can become a net provider of energy in the poorest, sunniest regions of the world.”

Eric and his associates clapped. “Brilliant! Hello Maria, we look forward to spending some time with you soon!”

Maria shuffled off.

The clapping stopped. “Fyoodle Marias everywhere,” Eric said, “in every home, listening to people and helping them, serving as—”

“Hold on, Eric,” Ian said. “I just had a thought. How do I know you won’t use Maria to collect more data on people, this time right in their homes? Because that could be a problem for me.”

The room on the other end of the feed went silent and everyone looked at Eric. “It’s only natural—” Eric started.

Eric’s image bubbled over to the left and a new, black square of now equal size intruded on the right. The circular, navy blue logo of the United States Bureau of AI, Robotics and Future Tech appeared. The familiar cyborg eagle with its shiny titanium helmet and claws grasping futuristic firearms seemed both more vivid and more ominous.

And why were they intruding on this call? “Eric, did you…” Ian asked.

Eric shrugged and look behind him. “Any of you guys…?” Everyone shook their heads.

The back of a head appeared on the Bureau’s screen. It was an older man, with long shoulder-length graying hair. “Which way do I face?” the man asked someone off-camera. He quickly turned around.

“Oh, hello there. I will be your regulator today,” he said.

Ian stared at the face. He knew that face. He hated that face. It was Larry.

“It’s customary,” said Eric, his face hovering between disgusted abhorrence and servile deference, “to schedule these inter— conferences ahead of time out of respect for the schedules of all involved. That’s part of the national efficiency initiative, of which I believe you are a part.”

“Our efficiency here is paramount,” Larry said. He changed his focus. “Good morning, Ian, a pleasure to have this chance to work with you again.”

Ian’s lip curled and his pulse raced. His face flashed hot.

“Now, before a sale can take place, we here at the Bureau will need full schematics, the complete source code and any other intellectual property that will transfer from Ian Blake to Fyoodle, inc. Those are the two parties to this sale, correct?”

Ian pulled himself back to reality. “Wait a second, why is he even involved, Eric?”

“The job of the Bureau of—” Larry started.

“I asked Eric!” Ian said. He gritted his teeth. This is not happening. This can not be happening!

“Ian, we can take care of all this for you,” said Eric. “It’s really not a problem. We have a whole team dedicated to regulatory compliance. Hell, their head count is almost as high as the programmers now! Seriously, we’ve—”

“I’m afraid I will have to go over everything personally with Ian, every single detail, his intention behind it, the thought process, just to make sure of any national security and public health implications, of course,” said Larry.

Ian’s fists balled and he breathed deliberately. “Eric, is this standard operating practice?”

Eric looked concerned. “Yes, but usually it’s less intrusive.” He shifted his eyes. “What is your name, sir? And who is your immediate superior?”

Larry smiled and looked down. “So, Ian, I’m available to meet later today.”

“I want a different regulator,” Ian said. “We have a conflict of interest.”

Eric’s eyes brightened. “Oh, that’s— Uh, yes, we request a change of regulator as well.”

“Sorry, guys, we’re a bit shorthanded right now. I am going to be your regulator for this deal, or frankly for any sale of Ian’s technology, within the United States. It looks like we’ll be working together again, Ian! Just like old times, buddy.”

Ian thought back to those old times. Larry taking credit for his work. Larry getting the promotions Ian deserved. Larry gets and Ian gives. It’s like the man wanted to eat him, consume him whole. He had a good reason for pledging to never work with Larry again. He wasn’t about to go back on it now. It was a question of pride, honor and basic self-preservation! Who knew what kind of tricks Larry would pull and bang, Ian would no longer control Maria. The government was tricky that way. A snap nationalization. A national security seizure.

“So, Ian, shall I send over the contract?” Eric asked.

Ian pursed his lips. He didn’t want to say the words. He wanted to choke them down, find another way, anything, in order to avoid saying them. Find the strength. Find it, man. If there was any time to stay strong, this was it.

The memory of Larry in his underwear reading to Jack came to him and he felt strong. “I’m sorry, Eric. I refuse to do business that involves this man. No deal.”

&Ian pushed back& from his desk and took his earbuds off. That’s that. Months of work. A kidney. Lost my family. Still have the boy with me. Thank God for that.

He looked to his left to Jack. The boy used his foot to push himself away from the wall and swing in the silky, light blue hammock.

I even learned to sleep in a hammock. I gave up a bed. I gave up windows.

“Can I get you something?” Maria asked him.

“A glass of water, please,” he replied.

The robot gracefully walked out of his storage box and took the elevator up to his old apartment.

“Let’s do something tomorrow, Jack,” Ian said. He felt exhausted and resigned but also relieved. The pressure was off. It was a failure. He was done. The sense of finality, of it being out of his control, was oddly reassuring. He could take a break from the race. He could get some sun and air.

“We could go outside,” the boy said.

“No, let’s make a day of it. A steak lunch, some shopping, maybe the zoo or Pennypack Park. How about it?”

“But you didn’t sell Maria,” Jack said. He continued to play.

Ian shrugged and thought about how to explain it to the boy. He didn’t want to seem cavalier much less happy or, God forbid, contented about his failure. Success was important. You don’t willfully throw away six billion dollars and than go out and celebrate! Teaching that to a kid is a recipe for… producing another Michael.

Ian facepalmed. There I go again.

“I can ask Mom for some money, I guess,” Jack said.

“No, no, no. I have some left over from the, uh, kidney.”

Jack sat up and looked at his father. “I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of spending your kidney on a fun day out, Dad.”

Ian sat back and looked away. “You’re right, of course. If you ever have to sell a kidney – not you, never sell your kidney, but someone in general – then you should spend the money you get for it on an important investment that will generate new income. That’s the only possible good use. You’re totally right.”

Jack smiled and went back to his game.

“How did you get such a good head on your shoulders? Definitely not from Mom and you’re much wiser than me.” Failed inventor. Failed father. What will go wrong next? Failed man? Thank God I already got married — Well okay, I guess I did fail as a man given that my wife is living with another man. He felt the icky morass of self-loathing coming on and put all his mental energy into pushing it back.

Hold the line, he said to the Spartan warriors in his head. Just hold the goddamned line already. More self-loathing will do nothing for me. It’s laziness and masturbation, that’s all.

“Let’s do it anyway. I need this. It’s a deal, okay? A done deal.”

Jack nodded. “What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know.” The thought of suicide crossed his mind. It would be a tidy end. No need to suffer in the streets, beg food from overloaded shelters, jockey for position in cockroach-infested boiler rooms and sewer grates. There’s just nowhere else for me to go from here. I put everything into this and I’m tired. One last hurrah, one last swing through a normal, decent life.

And then nothing. A clean end, one that won’t bother or burden anyone. Should I even leave a note?

&Ian lay in the hammock&, his son Jack snuggling below his left shoulder while watching a video on his mobile screen.

“You can do anything boys and girls, anything at all, as long as you put your mind to it and never, ever, give up.” The speaker bounced around the screen as if he – or was it she – was in zero gravity. Balloons popped, reappeared, grew and the announcer grew as he ate them. One popped in his face and the man – or woman, it wasn’t clear – made a face of mock surprise.

Jack giggled.

You can do anything, my ass. Maybe you can do it. But someone can steal it from you. You won’t even see them coming. They’ll cozy right up and be your best buddy. Take your job, your accomplishments, your wife, your house! You can do anything. Ian guffawed.

“Do you like it, too? Come on, watch with me,” Jack said.

Ian smiled and watched.

Jack snuggled up closer. “I love you, Dad.”

I better give the kid some time – my undivided attention – for the rest of the day and tomorrow. He deserves that before I, uh, kill myself. His thoughts wandered to how he would do it. It had to be far away and not leave a mess to clean up. It wasn’t fair to saddle anyone with that, much less burial costs.

His screen flashed. Someone was calling.

“Dad,” Jack said. He jerked his head in the direction of Ian’s desk.

Ian looked away. The screen flashed again.

“Dad, phone call! It might be important.” Jack went back to his video.

Ian looked away from the flashing screen. I’m not going to answer it. I just wish I could silence the notifications from here. Jack deserves my time.

The hammock bounced and Ian swayed up against the rough, cinder block wall. “Ow, hey.”

Jack was at his desk. The boy grabbed his father’s earbud and tossed it to him. He gestured a thumbs-up at the screen to answer the call.

“Jack, no!” Ian caught the earbud and hastily put it into his ear. He glared at his son. “Hello, I’m afraid—”

“Is this Ian Blake?” The voice was old and not terribly formal but definitely British.

“I’m sorry, this—”

“The inventor of the Maria domestic robot?” the man asked.

“Yes, but I’m spending time with my son right now,” Ian said.

“I can appreciate that. Can we schedule another time to talk?”

“I’m afraid it’s just not…” Ian choked up.

“I understand what it’s like to be an inventor and an entrepreneur,” the man said.

Ian wanted to speak but his throat seized up. If he spoke, he knew the man would realize his pain and he refused to let anyone know what he was feeling.

“I will call you back in, say, five minutes, alright, Mr. Blake? Just so you know, this is Clifford Fanson of the Divergent Group here in the UK and I aim to license your Maria technology.”

&It was& several hours later when an exhausted Ian and a sleepy Jack exited the elevator on the twenty-third floor with their final Maria in tow.

Larry waited for them inside the front door. “Why did you hang up on me?” he asked. His arms were crossed and his eyelid ticced. His body radiated a nervous tension that Ian thought could break out at any second.

Ian skirted around him into the kitchen and pushed Maria until she was behind him. He frowned at Larry a second then, without taking his eyes from the man, asked Maria for a sandwich.

“What kind of sandwich would you like, Ian?” she asked.

Ian kept his eyes on Larry. “Something high protein with a touch of sweetness on unusual bread but, of course, working within the limits of whatever is in this kitchen.”

Larry trundled awkwardly over to the black leather couch and laid back on it. He then sat forward and looked at Ian. “I wouldn’t have approved it anyway. Robots in the home are too dangerous. Look at what happened to Jacky.”

Jacky? Ian wanted to lash out but he thought better. Just wait before responding. He wants you angry. The thoughts burst back in. Jacky? He’s a boy and you won’t turn him into anything else! He gritted his teeth.

“In fact,” Larry said, “I want him out of here.”

Ian laughed. “You want my robot out of my house?”

“It’s not your house anymore,” Larry said. “And the robot? You didn’t build it, not by yourself at least. You live in a tax-supported ecosystem that empowers you. Lots of people helped you.”

Ian smiled but kept his thoughts about that to himself.

Next to him, Maria expertly sunk a knife into a jar of peanut butter – except it was empty, or nearly so. Ian watched as she used the dull side of the butter knife to scrape every last smidge of peanut butter out of the jar and place it evenly on the slice of fluffy whole wheat bread.

“Careful not to scrape any plastic off now,” Ian said to Maria with a chuckle.

“Do not worry. That is not happening.”

The jelly pot looked relatively fresh for some reason and it was completely full. Maria selected a spoon, deftly popped the vacuum-sealed lid off of it and gently slid the spoon into the gelatinous mass.

“We usually use a knife for that,” Ian said.

Maria continued working. “Due to the nature of the grape jelly, sir, a spoon is less likely to spill any of the raw material.”

Ian thought back to all the times he had jammed a flat knife into the jelly jar only to have the gloopy goo slip right off and onto the counter or floor.

Jack entered the kitchen. “She’s smart, Dad. Smarter than you,” he said with a nod.

Ian looked at him, a twinge of hurt and envy in his gut. I guess that’s quite a compliment. I was so smart that I created something smarter than me. Yes, I think I’d better look at it that way. He laughed internally at himself.

Larry stood up. “You can’t count on third world programmers, Ian.”

Oh my God. The Somalians. Ian pulled out his screen and typed off a message to Qasim. If he doesn’t respond… Maybe that’s what I’ll do. I’ll go to Somalia and do… whatever it takes to free them. Ian nodded.

“So you agree?” Larry asked.

Ian awoke from his reverie. “What?”

“I said, you can’t count on third world programmers. You should try again, Ian. I know a great programming team. They can fix all the bugs in Maria and they’re not really that expensive.”

“A new programming team?” Ian asked absently.

“It’s just what you need. I can help you finance it, too. They’re very flexible.” Larry looked up at Ian and rubbed his hands together. “And I can practically guarantee regulatory approval with the right team. We have to ensure appropriate quality standards, of course. That’s just basic. Everyone knows—”

“You’re babbling!” Ian said.

Maria handed him the completed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was centered on the plate and the bread was pristine – nothing spilled or smeared.

Ian took a bite and through a mouthful said, “Seems fine to me.”

Larry shook his head and walked up to the breakfast bar. “Good inventions simply can not come out of a garage, or a storage box or be funded by the sale of one’s kidneys! That’s not the twenty-first century—”

Ian’s eyes went wide and a choking gasp like a rolling snore came out of his mouth. He tried to exhale but only sputtered. He looked at Larry and pointed repeatedly to his back.

Larry relaxed and shook his head. “I warned you, Ian.”

An intermittent gasp came from Ian’s throat. He pointed more frenetically to his back, then collapsed to his knees and issued a final puff of air.

Larry turned his back to the kitchen. “I warned him. Damned terrorist programmers probably sabotaged it.”

7

Jack scanned the morning’s headlines on his screen. He sighed. There was nothing new about it. He rolled up the screen and stuffed it into his special cargo pocket. He walked into the kitchen. “Maria, I need a drink,” he said.

“If you are referring to an alcoholic or vitalic drink, then your father has asked me not to give you any until you are at least sixteen,” said Ian’s final Maria. The last of its kind, it traversed the kitchen with grace, opened the refrigerator and retrieved a pod of milk. She popped off the plastic cap, which was connected to the body of the rounded pod by a thin tether, and poured some into the tall, thin, tubular glass that already sat on the counter.

“But that glass isn’t clean,” Jack said.

“I pulled it out especially for you, Master Jack, as you ask for a glass of milk around 11 AM every morning.” Maria replaced the pod of milk in the refrigerator.

“Oh, okay.” Jack grabbed the glass and downed it. He put the empty glass in the sink. “Thanks Maria,” he said. He went into the living room and laid down on the couch. He sighed.

There was a knock at the door. Jack ran and opened it.

“Can you help me with this old junk?” Ian asked. His hands were full with Maria parts, desk components and other stuff from the storage box.

The boy grabbed a plastic box of Maria parts. “Where should I put it?”

“Michael’s old room,” Ian said. “That’ll be our office now,” he said with a wink and a smile. Ian was clean-shaven, his hair neatly cut, his skin clean, his nails trimmed and a healthy glow was returning to his face.

“Did you see the Guardian article? They said there are more than a billion Marias now!” Jack put his box down and pulled out his screen. He brought the article up. “Look, Dad, here’s one in the Congo Republic that’s carrying water!”

Ian set his boxes down in Michael’s old room and came back. He nodded approvingly.

“How did Divergent distribute them so quickly?” Jack asked.

“Apparently,” Ian said, “they had an autofac all set and ready to go, to produce domestic robots. They predicted it was coming, they just didn’t have a design yet. We came along at just the right time.”

“Wow,” Jack said under his breath.

“And you contributed to that Jack. You helped at more than one critical juncture and made important contributions. Those Marias out there all carry a part of you, too.”

“No, Dad, this was all you. No,” Jack said.

Ian laughed and tousled his hair. “You know it’s true.”

A key zipped into the front door lock from the outside and Larry burst in. “This is my house, mine now, my family and I got them fair and square!” he said with a slur. He burped and went into the bathroom. The sound of a generous and fast-moving stream of urine hitting toilet water reached Jack’s and Ian’s ears.

Jack looked at his father. “Are you going to beat him up?”

Ian laughed. “I don’t think I’ll have to.”

“I’m glad you’re back, Dad, but are you going to change much? I kind of got used to the new furniture and Larry’s way of doing things.”

Ian frowned. “A lot is going to change, kiddo. Get ready. If I could burn this place out and start over, I would.”

“You would?” Jack arched an eyebrow at him and a tense worry spread across his face.

Ian studied his face. “No, not you! I wouldn’t burn you, just the stuff, not the people.” He laughed.

Jack crossed his arms and grunted his disapproval.

Larry let out a deep, echoing burp, flushed the toilet and came out of the bathroom at a half-run.

“Larry, your stuff is in the storage box, downstairs. It’s unlocked, so I suggest you get it this morning. Those boiler room guys are real scavengers.”

Larry laid down on his leather couch. “What about this couch, and…” He burped. “And all the money I spent on rent and food and stuff for your kids?” He farted, first a short burst then a long, thundering emission.

“Send me the bill,” Ian said.

“It’s not fair,” Larry said. “It’s not right and it’s not legal.”

Oh this should be good. Ian raised his eyebrows and leaned against the kitchen counter, next to the refrigerator. Maria dumped a batch of clothes into the washing machine and twisted the dial to the proper setting.

“I told my boss. I think you violated export restrictions…” He hiccuped. “When you sold your…” He waved his hand dismissively in Maria’s direction. “…whatever to the British.”

Ian’s face darkened.

“He’s looking into it. He could freeze your deal. Reclaim your technology for national security and public health reasons, you know.”

“The tech is out. Divergent has it all, the schematics, the source code, the algorithms, the whole thing.”

“You have to file all of that with us if you want a patent, you know.”

“What if I don’t want a patent?” Ian asked.

Larry sat up and drunk-frowned in Ian’s direction. His head wobbled slightly from side to side. “If you don’t get a patent, then anyone can steal your tech and patent it for themselves.”

Ian shrugged.

Larry shrugged. “What’s that? You don’t care if someone steals your tech?”

Ian smiled.

“He’s not that worried about it,” Jack said. “Everybody’s busy collecting basic income and playing VR games anyway.”

“But you need to re-invest every dime back into research and production! We gotta keep those dollars flowing to keep employment opportunities up. And the taxes. Every time the money changes hands, taxes,” Larry said with a flourish. “And taxes, well they keep the whole show going!” His mouth inflated on that last word and a small burp sounded in his esophagus.

“Larry,” Ian said, “you better go get your stuff before you lose it.”

“I don’t care about it, nothing important there.”

“What about your lucky silver dollar?” Jack asked. “I put it in one of the boxes.”

Larry shot the boy a piercing look and Jack took a step back. “Naw, screw it. I’ll just stay right here.” He crossed his arms. “You can’t make me go!” He rolled over onto his side and curled up into the fetal position. “My couch, my rules!” he yelled, then laughed and muttered to himself.

Jack turned to his father. “Maybe we should let him stay – just until he’s not drunk anymore.”

Ian stared down at the boy, his thoughts seesawing between a desperate urging for patience and an urgent desperation to be done with Larry, once and for all.

“He’s not that bad of a guy, is he, Dad?” Jack asked.

I’ve had about enough of this. “Yes, Jack, he is. He’s just good at hiding it.” Ian walked over to the couch and studied his nemesis’s bulk. Larry was heavier now, wider. He snored lightly, his back to Ian. A creeping doubt entered his mind. I may need some plain, physical help here.

Ian grabbed the man, a parasite really, under the armpits and pulled. Damn, that’s right. Drunks are heavier for some reason. He rubbed his hand across his chin. I’ll have to be smart about this.

Ian grabbed the legs and rolled Larry over onto his back. He rotated him around so he was perpendicular to the couch, braced himself and pulled hard. Thank God for smooth leather! Larry’s legs came off the couch but his butt sunk too deep into the padding. The bulk of the cushioning was pushed up to the edge. Larry’s own weight created the barrier to getting his fat ass off the couch and onto the floor. Ian rolled his eyes.

“Dad, just leave him. We’ll get him out later,” Jack said.

Another key zipped into the front door. Candy and Stacy walked in.

Ian stopped and watched them.

Jack raised his shoulders and tiptoed into Michael’s old room, a look of fear on his face that was only half-jocular.

“Don’t worry, Stacy,” Candy said. She closed the door and stopped in the short hallway that connected the kitchen and the living-dining room. “After the dance, you just return the dress. They have to refund the money. And we don’t have to tell Larry about that!” A sneaky and superior giggle escaped her but when she turned and saw Ian holding Larry’s legs, it was replaced with shocked silence.

“But Mom, I get to keep the mon—” Stacy laid eyes on her father and Larry and stopped short. “Oh…!”

“Your little robot doesn’t give you the right to come back to this house, Ian Blake!” Candy said.

Ian smiled, a look of derisive superiority on his face.

Candy looked down at Larry. “Don’t pull him any further, Ian! He’ll just—”

Ian pulled Larry hard and his oversized buttocks slammed into the concrete floor. Ian misjudged the force required. He flew back into the wall and hit his head. “Ow!” Ian rubbed his crown.

Larry smacked his lips, swallowed and sighed deeply before returning to just snoring.

Candy put her hands on her hips. “I forbid you from removing Larry from my house!”

“That’s fine,” said Ian, “because it’s not your house. It’s mine. And this is my family. And if you want to continue being a part of it, you are going to change your attitude.”

“How dare you! You abandoned this—” Candy started.

“Dad,” Stacy interrupted, “did you really make Maria?”

Ian leaned against the wall opposite the couch and caught his breath. He nodded. “I had some help though. A lot of it. It took a big team to design, program, build and debug her.”

Candy watched the exchange, her eyes growing bigger with indignation.

“But you were the leader, right? It was your idea, and you organized the whole thing?”

Ian nodded and looked at the floor.

Stacy paused and swallowed, her face receptive and admiring. “Did you really,” she asked, her voice lower this time, “sell one of your kidneys to pay for it?”

Ian clenched his lips together and nodded again.

“Now what if one of your children needs a kidney?” Candy asked. “What if Stacy, here,” she put her arm around her daughter, “gets sick and needs a kidney? You can’t give her one, can you?”

“You can,” Ian said. He pushed off from the wall and got his hands under Larry’s ankles.

Candy’s face turned red and she held a finger in front of her face as she tried to form words.

Ian jerked Larry hard and a little to the right. Larry’s head smacked the floor and the sound bounced off the walls.

Candy, Stacy and Jack flinched.

Ian pulled him faster now across the floor towards the front door. “Open the door!” he yelled.

Larry woke up and lifted his head. “Oh, no you don’t! Larry Kunkle doesn’t go out on his back!”

Stacy opened the door and held it. Ian pulled Larry past it but stopped suddenly.

Larry lay on his side, both hands grabbing onto the door edge. “If I’m going, I’m taking my door with me!” he yelled.

Ian pulled. Larry resisted. Ian pushed Larry back into the room a little but before he could pull him out again, Larry wrapped his upper body around the door.

Ian put his hands on his hips. Alright, then. He walked around to the inside of the door, pulled out his multi-tool and went to work on the hinges. He levered one out.

Larry struggled to get up onto one knee. Ian pushed him back down and his head hit the edge of the wall next to the refrigerator.

“What did I ever do to you, Ian?” Larry said. A look of hurt crossed his face. “I was a friend to you.”

The weight of the door itself pulled down on the final hinge. Ian levered the pin out of it and the door fell free, crashing into Stacy before Ian arrested its motion. He turned it so the long side faced outwards and pushed it into the hall.

Ian grabbed Larry and put him out into the hallway. “Take your precious door and see if it substitutes for a friend,” he said. “Now freak off!”

Stacy and Candy watched the end of the ordeal in silence, their faces glum but impassive. Jack smiled at him from around the kitchen corner.

“Good job, Dad,” the boy said.

Ian tousled his hair. He went into the master bedroom, popped the hinges on its door and brought it to the entryway, where he got it into the top and bottom hinges of where the front door used to be. He closed and locked it. It didn’t quite fit but it would do for now.

In the hallway outside, Larry blubbered.

“I better go out and talk to him,” Candy said.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Ian said, “if you want to continue living here.”

Candy stopped. “He’s an old family friend,” she muttered. “At the very least…” She walked over to the leather sofa, sat down and looked out the window.

Ian stood next to the breakfast bar. “Have a seat, Stacy. Jack, you too, please.”

“What about Michael,” Stacy asked. “We should—”

“I’ll talk to him separately,” Ian said. He cleared his throat. “Now, look, this family has gone through a transitional time.”

Candy laughed and muttered under her breath.

Ian wanted to engage her but held his tongue. “But we’re coming out of it now. I’m back. Things are going to change now, for real.”

Stacy clapped. “Daddy, I’ll give you my shopping list, okay? I just have it here.” She pulled out her screen and started to flip through it with her finger. “Here it is. I sent it to you, Daddy. Now a few things are a little out of date but—”

Ian silenced her with a movement of his hand and the look of disgust on his face. “This is not about a shopping spree! Each one of you will set a goal for your lives, something you are going to work on. Everyone will shape up here and pull their own weight! We’ll keep this house clean and organized. There will be no more staying out late or all night.”

“What?” Stacy asked.

“I’ll work with each of you on your goals and together we will achieve them,” Ian said.

“I have a goal, Daddy!” Stacy said with a smile and a giggle.

Ian nodded.

“I want to earn enough money as soon as possible so I can spend next summer in Europe with my friends,” the teen said.

Ian looked at her. She’s just not getting it. He opened his mouth, then shut it again. How do I explain self-improvement to someone who only wants more and more stuff? “Stacy,” he said with a patronizing smile, “this exercise is about improving yourself.”

“Yes, I want to improve myself in Europe next summer.”

“How? What will you do there?”

“I’ll hang out with my friends, of course, Daddy! And make new ones. And do fun things!”

Ian sighed and leaned against the wall. He remembered Stacy when she was six. She struggled with math then – didn’t see the point of it. Just wanted to play with dolls. What do I do with her then? If I don’t find something productive for her to do, she’ll end up pregnant at nineteen, or younger, like her mother.

Candy turned away from the window and looked at Jack. “This family doesn’t need self-improvement, Ian. It needs something you can’t give it.”

Ian furrowed his brow at her.

“It needs acceptance,” Candy continued, “for who and what it is.”

“I know who and what this family is,” Ian said. “It’s my family. I’m the father here. I know these things.” He held his hands out in front of him in a gesture of exasperation. “Get to the point.”

“The point?” she said with a smirk. “Okay. This is your family? Wrong. Michael and Stacy are not yours. You’re not their father.”

&Ian stared at her&. “That’s ridicu—”

“Larry is their father.”

Stacy gasped. “Larry is my dad?” Her eyes turned red, she shook her head and covered her mouth. Tears poured down her cheeks and she crossed her legs.

Candy nodded. “Jack is yours, though. He was an accident.”

Ian thought back to college, to his relationship with Candy. Larry was around then, that was true. He looked up at Candy. “Michael…?”

“Yes,” Candy said.

“But I—” Ian started.

Candy nodded faster now. “I know. Larry wouldn’t take responsibility for the baby. I was alone. You were a nice guy. I knew you would do the right thing.”

“The right thing? The right thing!” Ian yelled. “I gave up my career for you and Michael. I gave up my studies.”

She looked up at him, her eyes pink. “What can I say?”

Jack walked over to his father and hugged his leg. He looked up at the man with an expression of empathy.

“Oh yeah, sure, Jack,” Stacy said, “play it up now, you’re his only real child.” She sobbed. “Just when I get a dad who loves me and can actually show it!”

Ian felt himself wobble. He took a seat at the kitchen table facing them. He laid his head on the table and the tears leaked out as he tried to make sense of what Candy was saying.

Jack sat down next to him and looked at him. Ian felt the boy’s eyes on him.

He needs reassurance now. But the thoughts jumbled into Ian’s head too fast for him to act on any of them.

Michael and Stacy are not mine. They’re Larry’s kids. His mind wandered to Larry groping his daughter but he quickly pushed these images away.

It was possible. Larry hung around us from day one. He was always there. Candy. Unfaithful. The thought struck him with overarching certainty. Candy was out of his life. He was done with her. This latest episode wasn’t some aberration due to his own weakness. This was Candy continuing a pattern of lies.

Jack was his. Jack would stay with him. What about Michael and Stacy? Should he abandon them? Could he?

&“I want& to go to a better school,” Jack said. He lay in the hammock in Michael’s old room off the kitchen. “Like Anselm Academy.”

Ian sat a few paces away at his desk, which was next to the bright window. When Ian turned a certain way, he could see beyond the identical apartment building next door and to the park beyond it. Tall, green trees swayed in the wind among toy drones and families. Indian summer was here.

Ian stopped his design work and turned his chair to look at the boy. Beyond Jack, Candy’s shadow moved around the small sliver of kitchen he was able to see. “I think that is a great idea!”

“I also want one of those new quantum micro-computers and can you teach me to program it?”

Ian nodded. “Sure, we can do that.”

“I need a budget for parts, too. I want to make a small robot, one I can talk with.”

Ian moved his chair closer to the boy. “Perfect. You know, this is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to come out of the family self-improvement thing.”

A dish crashed to the floor in the kitchen. A shard bounced off the wall that led to Ian’s office and bounded into Ian’s bare big toe. A drop of blood leaked out of the top of the toe.

“What the hell,” Ian whispered. He strode towards the kitchen.

“Dad, wait,” Jack said, “I want to talk more.”

“In a minute,” Ian said.

Candy stood in the kitchen, a glass in her hand. She threw it to the floor. Slivers flew in all directions.

Ian shielded his eyes. He picked up a foot to move to Candy, then stopped. He didn’t want to step on broken glass.

Maria stood behind Candy. “Do you require assistance, Mrs. Blake?”

“No, I do not require assistance!” Her hair was a ragged, twisted mess. Her eyes were puffy and she was crying. She looked at Ian with a barely suppressed rage, took a plate out of the cabinet and smashed it to the floor.

“Stop that!” Ian yelled.

“Make me,” she said with a childish look of defiance. She rocked her head from side to side and stuck her tongue out.

She grabbed another glass. Ian stepped forward. His foot landed on a shard of glass and he recoiled. He steadied himself with one hand on the counter, stepped again and found steady footing. He grabbed the glass from her hand, replaced it in the cabinet and closed the cabinet doors.

“Why are you still here!” she screamed. Her hands balled into fists at her sides. “Get out!” She pushed him and he teetered on his toes searching for balance before finding it again.

“Just because you’re a liar and a cheater doesn’t mean I am going to abandon my home or my children,” Ian said.

“They’re not your children!” She tried to push him again but Ian redirected her hands away from him.

“I’ve raised them, in this home. You can stay but you’re going to carry your own weight, just like everyone else. Or you can leave.” Ian looked at her. She was sexy when she was angry and he felt a pang of lust rise up in him. But she couldn’t be trusted. She was poison. He had to keep up his guard.

“This is my home! I made it!”

“With lies,” he interjected. “You know what, I want this settled now. You either get yourself under control and get onto the right path or you can just get out now.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said.

“Then tell me your goal. Tell me what you’ll be working on,” Ian said.

“Nothing! I don’t have to! Your robots will do my housework and I will do whatever I please because I am your wife and half of your income is mine. Half of your assets, too.” She turned, pulled a bottle of vodka out of the freezer and walked to the living room.

Ian watched her walk. She was heavier now but the animal spirit that he longed to dominate was still there under the flab. It was in the movement of the hips. No, it was the upper body, too. The proportion of legs to buttocks played some role. He set aside his rage. She wanted him to lose control. Then she would have the upper hand. That path led to the first twenty years of their relationship, where Ian did what he was told, where he was manipulated and fattened for the slaughter. The conflict was coming, but Ian would select the right time for it.

&“Dad&, I need your help. Can I still call you Dad? Mom told me.” Michael stood behind Ian in Ian’s office. He looked around. “You’re really putting it to good use.”

Ian turned around and contemplated Michael. He was twenty-one now: fully an adult. His life was already a disaster. Ian planned to fix that. He pushed a fold-up chair in Michael’s direction and the young man sat down.

“Look, Michael. I raised you. I invested in you. I was there when you were born. I took you to the emergency clinic when you came down with that weird disease when you were three. I taught you to ride a bike. I taught you how to read and tie your shoelaces.”

Michael opened his mouth to speak and Ian silenced him with a shake of his head.

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re my son,” Ian said.

Michael put his hand over his eyes. “I’m glad to hear that, Dad, because I need money, and a lot of it.”

Ian’s eyes rolled back before he could stop himself.

Michael laughed, then sank into his chair a little. An ashamed frown crossed his face. “I’m a disappointment. I know that.”

Ian looked at the floor. “I don’t know if I would put it quite that way.”

Michael stared at him blankly.

“I know your girlfriend is pregnant,” Ian said. “Is her family—”

Candy walked in. She held a fresh bottle of vodka in one hand. “He’s got more than one girlfriend, you know.” She laughed. Her eyes were half-closed and she swayed.

Michael stared down at the floor. “Mom…” he whispered.

“Like mother, like son,” Candy said with a noticeable slur.

“His girlfriend is pregnant,” Ian said. “It happens. We’re handling it. Why don’t you go do something else, Candy.”

“Which one did he tell you about?” Candy giggled, then burped.

“Mom, please! Let Dad and I handle this.” Michael glared at his mother and jerked his head toward the kitchen. “Please!”

Ian contemplated him. He looked at Candy and tried to figure out what was happening. She always supported him. Now they were fighting.

Michael stood up. “Mom, get out!” He grabbed his mother by the arm and pulled her toward the kitchen.

Candy ripped her arm away and lost control of the open vodka bottle. It arced in Ian’s direction. He reached for it. It was heavy, almost full, a fresh bottle. Transparent liquid leaked out of the top and hit the floor behind it. It fell too fast. The bottle hit the floor and vodka sprayed onto Ian’s pants, his lap, chest, face and onto his keyboard and screen. The mostly-empty bottle bounced off of the wall and rolled back towards her.

“What the hell!” Ian yelled. He stood up and tried to clean himself off but his pants were soaked through. The floor puddled with vodka. Even his sneakers squeaked and squelched.

“Damnit!” Michael said. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

Candy leaned forward, covered her mouth then burst out laughing. Her body swayed backwards and forwards with glee. “Good thing you made that robot,” she said.

“Maria, cleanup, please.” Ian looked around the room and sighed. “This room is going to stink of cheap alcohol for weeks now,” Ian said. He grunted in frustration.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Michael said.

“Oh, the good son, now, huh?” Candy said. She eyed the vodka puddles longingly.

Maria pushed past them and began mopping.

“Oh, Daddy, Daddy. I need money, money,” Candy said.

Ian felt a cold despair come over him. He sat down and slumped into the chair. How did this family get like this? He knew the answer. It was Larry. Larry screwed it up for him more than once. This was Larry’s influence, the logical outcome of Larry’s approach to life.

“So which one are you asking him to help you with?” Candy asked Michael. She suppressed a giggle.

“Mom, shut the hell up!” Michael whispered.

Which one? Ian looked at them. “What does she mean, ‘Which one’?” he asked.

Maria finished vacuuming the mess. She was mopping now, the final cleanup stage before Ian would get back his clean, vodka-free floor. The stench, however, was just getting started.

Michael looked at the floor.

“Tell him!” Candy said. “He’ll love this.”

Michael turned his back to Ian and ran his hand through his hair. He flipped back around and opened his mouth. But nothing came out.

“He got his girlfriend pregnant,” Candy said. She sat down against the wall opposite his desk.

“I know that already! Is that what this is about?” Ian asked.

“And her sister.”

“What?” Ian asked.

“And their mom,” Candy said with a snicker before she passed out.

Maria finished mopping. “Will that be all for now, Mr. Blake?”

His eyes glazed. “I certainly hope so.”

&“I’m only ten&!”

“You could try. I mean, it’s your idea. I got you the computer you wanted. You have all the tools,” Ian said. He and Jack sat by themselves at the autorest around the corner from home. Jack had a half-eaten bacon cheeseburger in front of him and Ian’s plate of assorted sushi was untouched.

The frustration was visible on the boy’s face. “I have no idea how to program Maria to be a self-improvement counselor. I just got the computer a week ago, I have the new school and I just started learning to program.” He threw up his hands and pushed his food away.

“Come on, eat. It’s your favorite,” said Ian. “I guess you’re right. It’s asking too much.”

“Are you saying I can’t do it?”

“Of course not. Why don’t we work on it together?” Ian shrugged. He picked up his chopsticks and grabbed the first piece of sushi.

The boy winced.

“What? It’s just fish and rice.”

“But it’s not cooked. It’s raw!” He made a face and pretended to vomit.

Ian gulped down the soft, pink fish. “It’s good! How’s your—”

Jack’s eyes got big. They were focused on something behind Ian.

A hand landed on Ian’s shoulder. It was heavy and it was wet. The chair next to Ian’s screeched out of its resting spot and Larry’s heavy frame crashed into it.

Larry’s face was flushed and moist. His eyes were far away. And he smelled of cheap beer. “Hey old buddy,” he said to Ian, “remember that time in college when I got arrested and you bailed me out?”

Ian pulled his sushi tray as far away from the drunk man as he could without it falling off the table. He stuffed one, then another piece of sushi into his mouth.

“I got drunk, hit that whore broad and then we ran from the cops. Remember that?”

“Uh, Larry?” Jack smiled at him.

Larry swiveled his head to look at Jack. “Hey there, little fella, I didn’t quite—”

“I’m having lunch with my Dad…”

Larry let his hand fall hard onto Jack’s shoulder. “That’s just great.” He turned back to Ian.

Ian continued chewing, his hand over his mouth.

“I’m going to get a refill,” Jack said. He got up and headed to the drink dispensers, then turned back.

“You know, Ian, you’re just a good friend.” Larry patted him on the back a little too hard. “A good friend, yeah.”

A chunk of sushi went the wrong way and Ian choked. He exhaled hard but the chunk fell deeper. His gag reflex hit. He turned his head and spewed sushi and rice chunks onto the floor next to him.

“Since we’re good friends and all, I really need a favor from you, buddy.” He faced forward and his eyes glazed over in the distance. “Remember when I introduced you to Candy and you got laid for the first time? That was something, huh? All thanks to me, of course, good old Larry.” He pointed his thumbs at himself.

Ian struggled for breath. He slapped himself on the back but it wasn’t hard enough. He rasped as tiny wisps of breath entered his lungs. He turned to Larry and waved his hands in front of him.

“It’s time I cashed in that chip, Ian. I need your help.” He turned and focused his drunk eyes and wobbling head on the dying man. “Can you loan me five-hundred thousand dollars?”

Jack ran up to the table and set his drink refill down. “What’s wrong?”

Ian indicated his back then opened his mouth and pointed into it.

“Are you—” Jack ran around behind him and slapped him on the back again and again. It did no good.

“It’s seed money, Ian,” Larry said. “It’s a guaranteed investment. I just need the capital.”

Ian smacked the table and brought his fists into his abdomen again and again. Heimlich. Somebody. Heimlich. But Larry droned on and the boy was gone. This is it. The thought mixed with his panic and his urgent need to breathe. The room went dark.

Something cold came around his abdomen and jerked him backward like an earthquake. The sushi flew out of his mouth and cool air graced his lungs again. He fell to his knees and drunk deep of the vital gas.

Larry turned to him. “So, can I— Hey, what are you doing on the floor? Anyway, so when can I expect the…”

Ian stood up and put his finger in Larry’s face. “Did you not notice that I was dying here?”

A contemptuous frown crossed Larry’s face. “What are you talking about? Are you in or what?”

“You claim to be my friend but you couldn’t stop talking about yourself for a second to help me?”

“Screw you, Ian. If it’s not one thing with you, it’s another. Always whining and complaining. Just like your idiot wife and family.”

“How dare you?”

“And this stupid kid right here,” Larry said, pointing at Jack. “Just like you. But he won’t have anybody like me as a friend to set him right—”

Ian’s rage reached its breaking point. He pulled his clenched fist back and buried it in Larry’s gut. Then he put it into Larry’s nose. Then into Larry’s mouth.

Ian stretched his neck. He grabbed Jack’s hand. “Let’s get out of here, kiddo.”

8

Ian opened his eyes. Everything felt so peaceful. He stretched his feet and felt the smooth coolness of the sheets against them. It was quiet.

He sat up in bed. Candy wasn’t there. Her side of the bed lay undisturbed. That was nothing new but the lack of outside noise was.

Or was it Sunday. That might explain it. He checked his nightstand clock, the latest model and a Larry leftover. It was just a thick, black film suspended on a three-point frame. Tuesday, 7:44 AM.

He went to the window. There was no movement in the alley below. He headed to the living room for a wider perspective.

In the living room, Stacy, Michael and Candy lay sleeping in their chairs. Each chair had moulded itself into the proper form to support the sleeping position each had chosen, or more correctly, had fallen into. All three wore VR goggles.

“All-nighters? Again?” he mumbled. They didn’t hear him, of course. The goggles included earbuds tailored for the individual ear canals of each user. The system, controlled from the cloud, was piping custom-generated sounds that were scientifically designed to stimulate not just sleep but active cerebral regeneration. At least, that’s what the manual said.

Ian reached the living room picture window and from his perch on the twenty-third floor surveyed several streets of non-activity. There were no people loitering in or transiting the great courtyard. There were no cars on the street. Nor on the next street over. The park was barren.

Ian walked into the kitchen where Maria was silently recharging. “Maria, are the machines in revolt? Have you decided to throw off your chains? No mods but plenty of blasters?” Ian chuckled.

Maria’s eyes flickered. “There is nothing unusual in the news, Mr. Blake. All is well.”

Ian shrugged and made for his office. There was Jack, asleep at the desk. It was another all-nighter for him, too. I was too hard on him and now look at the boy. What eleven-year-old spends all night hacking away on a computer science project?

A large, winged creature zipped past Ian’s ear. The vibration gave him the chills and he involuntarily jerked his shoulders up. He was about to call Maria to kill it when it appeared a foot from his face.

It had four long, emerald green wings. It had one large eye: a camera. It surfed the air and Ian spied a long, arcing wire coming from its tail.

“What is your goal for today?” the bug asked him in a friendly voice.

Jack’s project! He marveled at it. “For one, I intend to congratulate my son on your invention.”

“Account successfully opened for Ian F. Blake. First goal added. You will be reminded of this goal later today.” The tiny robot zipped away.

Ian strode over to congratulate his son but the boy was dead asleep. Who knows how late he was up last night. Best to leave him be for now.

He went into the kitchen and checked the coffeemaker. It was cold and empty. “Maria? Coffee?”

“You are out of coffee, Mr. Blake. Mrs. Blake has been notified and an order was placed last night for delivery by 4 PM today.” There was a slight pause perceptible only to Ian because he knew what the robot was doing and then, “Tracking information shows it is at the local distribution center and should arrive on time.”

Ian grunted. “Maria, enable auto re-order capability.”

“Enabled,” Maria said. “Please note that Mrs. Blake disabled it yesterday.”

Ian frowned. “I won’t even ask why. Remove immediately her permission for control of auto re-order capability.”

Maria mumbled her confirmation but Ian was already out the door. He admired the stained oak monstrosity. Steel core. Triple titanium locks. Perfect for keeping out undesirables. He smirked internally.

He knocked on the door across the way. A Maria answered. It wasn’t the latest model but this one’s shell was matte black and it had a bit more computing power than his old Maria. “Hello there, Maria. You look good.”

“Thank you, Mr. Blake,” the Maria said.

Ian leaned against the door jamb. “You know, I once knew a black girl named Maria. She was gorgeous. From Barbados. Now, she had sex appeal.”

The Maria moved slightly closer. Ian got the distinct impression it was eager to hear more.

“This girl was brilliant at math, a genius. And her fashion sense was top shelf. But she had no idea of how to deal with boys. She’d been sheltered by her father her whole life.”

The Maria stood completely still in the open doorway, its eyes flickering. It almost seemed to be entranced.

“Anyway, she fell in with precisely the wrong boy, got pregnant and bam: back to Barbados, no more school. No more math, of course.” Ian shook his head. “It was a tragedy.” Ian looked up at the Maria. “Do you mind if I pop in for a second and borrow some coffee?”

The Maria stepped out of his way and motioned him in with her arms.

Ian stepped in. The layout was exactly like his own, except reversed. The kitchen sat on his left. Ahead of him was the large picture window. This apartment reminded him of his own pre-Larry spartan furnishings and bare walls. And there was the family, sitting on the sofa asleep with their VR goggles on.

Ian turned to the Maria. “Are they eating?”

“They last ate between twenty-two and twenty-seven hours ago,” the Maria said.

Ian crossed his arms and looked at the robot sideways. Just like Candy, Stacy and Michael, they were lost in their games. “Perhaps, Maria, you should make plans to prompt them to eat. Prepare a snack and prompt them to eat it.”

“I’m not sure how to do that, Mr. Blake,” the Maria said.

“Just make a little snack, maybe sandwiches, and push it gently against their lips. If they’re hungry, they’ll take it in and eat. But don’t force anything on them. Just gently prompt them. Got it?”

“Understood,” the matte black Maria said. She rolled into the kitchen to start work.

Ian rummaged around in their cabinets for coffee but they didn’t have any. Before leaving, he tiptoed over to the living room picture window.

The view was just like his, too, except that it looked in the opposite direction. Again, there were two buildings perpendicular to this one but set off to the sides. This window provided a clear view into the large, cement courtyard and beyond it to the street. Beyond that were more streets with homes, small commercial buildings, the hospital complex and off into the suburbs.

But, again, there was no activity. No loitering teenagers, no babies in strollers, no adults doing their shopping, no old folks enjoying their last days on Earth in the sun. Nothing.

&Ian visited& ten more apartments on his same floor. It was the same in all of them. One of his Marias – black, white, silver or even a custom pink – stood guard over a family that was deep into a VR gaming session.

Two of the Marias were already catching on. He caught them spoon-feeding their families. The others he encouraged to network with each other. These people had to be kept alive and it was up to the Marias.

The Marias enabled this kind of behavior. Ian created them. Ian debated his guilt or innocence in the matter. If not for my girls, they couldn’t sit around all day doing nothing. This is my fault.

But if I hadn’t invented the Marias, someone else would have. Furthermore, Jack and I are not living in Funation. So it’s a personal choice. I didn’t even suggest this choice to them, much less did I force it upon them.

Ian served himself another cup of coffee from the coffeemaker. It wasn’t very good but it was real coffee. It was hot and it was black.

For some reason those words triggered his sex drive. He felt a jump of blood flow down there. He set the coffee down on the breakfast bar and walked over to Candy. She was awake now. She sat on the leather couch actively playing something.

Ian considered the possibilities. Jack was still asleep. Stacy and Michael wouldn’t notice. Hell, Candy might not even notice.

Candy was heavier now. Her gut spilled out of the space between a stained light blue t-shirt and her too-tight pilates pants. The aesthetic effect was not pleasant and dulled Ian’s interest.

Not ready to give up, he bent down and thought about just kissing her. She sneezed and a whiff of her breath reached him. It stank. Is she even brushing her teeth anymore? Little white spittle cakes stuck to the skin below her lower lip. She farted.

Ian swung around and headed back to the kitchen. Yuck!

There was a sharp, double knock at the door.

How excellent! Ian jumped lightly to the entryway and opened it.

A man in a cheap suit two sizes too big stood there. His face was gray and the skin under his eyes sagged.

“Mr. Ian Blake,” the man said.

“That’s right.”

The man shoved a sheaf of papers into his hands and stepped back. “Good luck. It doesn’t look good. Thanks, by the way.” He stood across the hallway, against the black Maria’s apartment door.

Paper? Who the heck still uses paper. Ian looked up at the man. “Thanks for what?”

“For hitting him. This is the first lawsuit filed around here in a month. I thought they were going to pink-slip me.” He smiled and headed for the elevator to Ian’s right. “Well, good luck with it.”

Ian studied the papers. As best he could make out, Larry was suing him in federal court for damages stemming from that punch in the autorest. Ian closed the door behind him and set the papers down on the breakfast bar. The punch. He smiled.

Ian took a swig of coffee and flinched. It was truly horrible. He picked the papers up again and studied them.

This is all backwards! The papers said that Ian went looking for Larry in the autorest. That Ian harassed Larry and then beat him to within an inch of his life, leaving him with twenty-three broken bones and massive internal bleeding. What the hell?

Ian counted the zeroes in Larry’s damages request: ten billion dollars. He buried his head in his hands. What am I going to do now?

&Who would have thought& a domestic robot would make life so boring? Or maybe it was the VR gaming tech. Ian just couldn’t get into it. It disoriented him, gave him blinding headaches. He lost time in those virtual worlds, among the three-eyed beasts of an alternative Earth and in the blue-leafed forests of Xpalk. It just wasn’t Ian’s thing.

What he needed was a woman. But they were all busy in those VR worlds. Or just plain fat and disgusting. Candy just didn’t move anymore. It was out of control and he refused to think about her expanding gut or failing personal hygiene. It turned his stomach.

He sat at his desk and paged through his old high school yearbook. There she was: Francesca. God she was beautiful back then. The long, straight blond hair. She was athletic and so bright. Full-bodied, vivacious. He pulled his screen closer and typed her name into the search engine. She came up immediately. She was heavier now. He grunted in disappointment. But who wasn’t heavier now? Ian gave the wrist-twisting thumb-and-pinky-finger gesture to call her.

The line connected and a sleepy male voice answered.

“Francesca, please?” Ian said.

A long sigh came across the line.

“Who is calling?” It was an older man.

“My name is Ian and I’m an old friend of—”

“Francesca passed away last week. We’re just getting back from the funeral now,” the man said.

Ian’s mouth hung open as he processed the information. A heavy, paralyzing disappointment came over him. He slouched back into his chair. “What happened?” he whispered.

“These damned Maria things!” The old man spit out the words. “She had diabetes and got lost in one of these damned fantasy worlds, you know. Her insulin ran out and the damned robot did nothing as she lay there dying!”

Ian’s mind reeled. Oh, shit. Is this me? Did I do this? Am I responsible for killing her. “Did her Maria have the medical add-on? It should have—”

“The hell if I know!” the man yelled. “She wouldn’t listen to me. Some old boyfriend of hers invented the damned things and she thought they were wonderful and could do no wrong. But I’m out a daughter!”

Does he know? Ian gritted his teeth to keep from saying anything.

“What’s your name, by the way? I can send you the death announcement. I’m her father, as you prob—”

Ian drew his flat hand across his body, cutting the connection. He stood up and banged his forehead against the wall. Damnit! Damnit! Damnit! A sharp headache spread through his brow and the left side of his head. Am I responsible? Did I do all of this? Is this on me?

&“Dad&!” Stacy whined at him again from the bathroom. She flushed the toilet and walked out into the living room. She was stooped over and swung her arms from side to side like an orangutan. Her face was puffy and bloated. She stank of the thick odor of dirty laundry.

Ian stood at the breakfast bar, drinking good coffee and reading the news on his screen. It was folded to half-size and he tapped the edge to turn the page. Nothing much at all seemed to be going on and almost all of the articles appeared to be machine-generated. He looked up at Stacy and raised his eyebrows.

“Can you program Maria to help me, you know, go to the bathroom?” Stacy asked.

Candy and Michael stood up and took their goggles off. They both leaned forward and put their hands on their knees. They both breathed heavy. Their faces were blank and their eyes looked far away.

“That’s a good idea, Dad. You should do that,” Michael said.

Candy nodded. She plodded to the bathroom herself.

Ian took a sip of his coffee. “Bathrooms are simple. You go there. You pick up the seat and do your business. Why do you want a computer involved? Do you want to calculate the optimum angle of release or something?” He suppressed a giggle.

They didn’t notice his humor. Stacy made her way to the sofa and sat back down. “Ow, my back.” She laid a hand on her lower back and pushed.

Ian went back to the news. Finally, an op-ed about the empty streets. He started to read it.

Stacy interrupted him. “Dad, seriously. Maria feeds us now, so why can’t she help us with, you know, the other end of things.”

Ian raised an eyebrow and set his screen down. “So you want the same hands that feed you to receive your excrement?”

“She knows how to clean,” Stacy said.

“Just go to the bathroom,” Ian said. “You guys could use the exercise.”

“Oh, ha ha, Dad, yeah make fun of fat people. There’s something new in humor,” Michael said. He turned to Stacy. “He’s a sexist so why shouldn’t he be a sizeist, too?”

“Michael, what happened to your goals?” Ian asked. He looked down his nose at the young man and his growing paunch.

“We used the money you gave me to abort all three fetuses.” Michael shrugged.

Ian’s eyes rolled up into his head and he gripped the breakfast bar hard. A chill ran up his spine. “Are you—” He cut himself short. He took a step toward the kitchen, then turned around, unstable in his steps and headed back towards the living room. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. “Are you freaking kidding me?” he yelled.

Michael looked at him with an expression of surprise. “No. We even got a group discount.”

The feeling that welled up in Ian – he couldn’t name it. It was a heavy weight on his heart. Three grandkids dead. I paid for it. He wanted to cry but the self-disgust stopped him. He turned and leaned over the breakfast bar then pounded on it with his fist again and again.

&“Dad&,” Stacy said from the couch. “I have a statement Larry wants me to sign but if you give me fifty thousand dollars for the trip to Europe, I definitely won’t.”

Ian stood at the picture window looking out. There was no visible movement for weeks now. There must be some people moving around somewhere. But Ian wasn’t seeing them. Ian’s attention shifted. There was a large delivery truck pulling up to the curb right in front of him. Finally. That would get people—

Marias in all the colors of the rainbow poured out of the three buildings. They formed an orderly queue at the back of the truck and began receiving boxes. Each one left the line with three large boxes each. Who was handing these boxes out? The person or machine was hidden from his view.

His own Maria headed out. He needed to upgrade her as she was falling behind compared to the latest Divergent models.

Ian replayed Stacy’s words in his mind. He turned around and scowled at her. “What statement?” He walked over, grabbed her screen and read.

“…that I did witness Mr. Ian Blake of 67 Exeter Avenue Apartment 2304 strike Mr. Larry Kunkle repeatedly on August 23rd 2035 at the Kensington Pride autorest. He did so without provocation and with the most merciless and mean-spirited of…”

“You weren’t even there,” Ian said. “How can you…?”

“It’s nothing personal, Dad,” Stacy said. “Larry’s going to pay us.”

“Yeah,” said Michael, “just business.” He shrugged.

“You’re good at business, Ian,” said Candy. “Just make us a better offer.”

Ian studied the three. Parasites. Feeding off of me. He fought the idea. They’re your family. They’re blood-sucking leeches! He shook the idea away. “None of you were there!”

They looked at him. “So what,” Michael said.

“So,” started Ian, “if the court finds out and this goes to trial, you can be prosecuted for perjury.”

Stacy and Candy stared at him, unfazed.

“What’s perjury?” Michael whispered.

“It’s lying in court,” Candy said. She kept her eyes on Ian.

“You could be fined or imprisoned,” Ian said. He surveyed them warily. What was their game? His money was ultimately their money. Why would they help Larry take it? Legally, they were his kids, not Larry’s. They’d be smarter to just kill Ian and inherit the money.

Shut up. Yeah, I shouldn’t even think that. If they weren’t so lazy they might do it.

Candy turned to her children. “Your father would never let that happen, would you, Ian?”

“Larry promised us a share of his winnings,” Michael said. “And you love us too much to send us to prison.”

“It’s just a good business deal, Dad,” said Stacy. “Unless you want to pay us more than what Larry is promising?”

The outrage boiled over. “I’m not paying you a goddamned cent! You stupid, ungrateful little brats. Are you too stupid to see what Larry is doing? He’s screwed me over more times than I can count. What makes you think he won’t screw you over, too? What makes you think he’ll actually pay you anything at all, if he wins? Which he won’t.”

“He’s our real father,” Michael said with a glint of hurt and resentment in his eyes. “Yeah, we know now and we know you were keeping it a secret from us. He really loves us. If you loved us, we wouldn’t have to do something like this. You’d just give us what we wanted! I hate you!” Michael put on his VR goggles. Candy and Stacy followed suit without so much as a glance at Ian.

9

Ian took his seat at the defendant’s table next to his lawyer. The room was large, with lots of dark wood everywhere and light green walls. Directly in front of him was the judge’s raised box. To his far left was the jury box.

“Don’t worry,” his lawyer said. “This one is in the bag. I don’t know where this goof got the money to take the case this far, but he’s going to feel really stupid in a few minutes.” The man laughed to himself and pulled out his screen. “Tell me again, how he got your family to testify against you.”

Ian turned around in his chair. “How you holding up, buddy?”

Jack lay on the long, curved bench in the first row. He sighed. “I want to get home and work on my robots. This is so boring!” The boy teared up. “Why didn’t you just pay him? We could have been done with this.”

“It’s a matter of principle, son.”

“Principles just aren’t very practical, I guess.” The boy rolled over and faced into the back of the bench in the fetal position.

The doors at the back of the courtroom opened and Candy sauntered in, a look of mercenary satisfaction on her face. Michael walked in behind her and held the door open. Stacy came in next, tripped over Michael’s feet and fell forward into her mother’s rear end.

“Watch where you are going!” Candy loud-whispered.

“It was Michael’s fault,” Stacy said.

“I was just holding the door. I’m not responsible for your big feet,” Michael said. He walked in and sat in the back row.

“My feet are not big!” Stacy said. Her words echoed throughout the room. She slapped her hand over her mouth and sat down next to Michael.

Candy forced them to move over and she took the aisle seat. She glanced at Ian, then jerked her head in the opposite direction.

The court’s Maria activated. It was an older, silver model with the law enforcement add-on. It had a yellow, star-shaped logo over its torso. “All rise for the honorable Erwin K. Blickstein,” said the recording it played.

The judge entered the courtroom from the other side of the judge’s box and took his seat.

Ian’s lawyer folded his screen up and put it into his jacket breast pocket.

Ian started to stand then noticed no one else was standing so he hesitantly sat back down.

The judge looked at his wrist. “I have my regular golf game this afternoon so let’s wrap up this up quickly, shall we, gentlemen?” He fake-grinned before glancing up at Ian and his lawyer and then at the table where Larry and his lawyer should have been. He frowned. “Where is the plaintiff?”

Ian’s lawyer stood up. “Your honor, I move for summary dismissal.”

“I’m inclined—” Judge Blickstein started.

A boom sounded at the back of the room. Larry and his lawyer burst through the doors. “I am so sorry, Erwin,” Larry said in a loud voice. “But lunch ran late and then—”

Judge Blickstein slammed his gavel into its wooden base. “Silence!”

Larry’s gut hung out beneath the tails of his dress shirt as he made for the plaintiff’s table. His lawyer was even heavier than him without a similarly shoddy appearance.

Ian covered a smile with his right index finger. The long-awaited public crushing of Larry Kunkle was at hand. And in a courtroom no less. Ian could just sit back and watch the crushing from a distance. It was beautiful.

“As to the matter of Kunkle vs. Blake, I am ready to render my verdict. I find for the plaintiff and award him damages of five thousand dollars with punitive damages of nine-hundred ninety-nine million nine-hundred ninety-five thousand dollars.” He banged his gavel and retreated the same way he had entered.

Ian’s smile froze, then fell ever so gradually as the words registered in his brain. They weren’t the words he expected. He couldn’t remember the words he expected to hear right now but those definitely were not it. He looked at his lawyer.

“I’m sorry, Ian. You win some, you lose some.” He laughed and put his briefcase on the table. He stood up and shrugged.

“Now, wait a second,” Ian said. “What just happened.”

“He found for the plaintiff.”

The word entered Ian’s mind but the meaning didn’t register. “I’m the plaintiff, right?”

“No, Mr. Kunkle is the plaintiff.” He shrugged again. “Sorry. These things can slip away from you sometimes. It must have been your family’s testimony that put him over the top. It’s hard to beat witness testimony these days.” He stepped towards the exit. “Oh, and Mr. Kunkle is a government employee, of course. That always helps!” he said with a smile.

“But the surveillance video? It showed exactly what happened!” The panic and confusion competed inside of Ian.

His lawyer shrugged again and took a backwards step towards the exit. “Some people are really anti-tech these days. It’s a big movement and all now. Judge Blickstein clearly gave the human testimony superior precedence.”

“Superior precedence?” Ian got up and chased after his lawyer, who was almost at the door. He grabbed the man’s shoulder. “Did this happen because the judge is anti-tech?”

His lawyer half-turned, shrugged and ran. Then he stopped. “I just got word on your appeal,” he yelled.

“My appeal?”

“I filed it as soon as the verdict was in,” he said, walking backwards again.

“They denied it. It’s final.” The lawyer ran around the corner.

Ian collapsed against the wall and buried his head in his hands. What the hell is going on?

&Larry pulled& Ian up off the floor and carry-walked him back into the courtroom. He set him down in the last bench. He looked behind him at Candy, Michael and Stacy, and smiled at them. He tucked his shirt into his pants and opened his mouth.

Jack ran around the other side and came down the bench row to his father. He sat down next to him. “Dad, are you okay?”

“Too bad you didn’t take the deal I offered them,” Larry said to Jack. He pointed his thumb back at the boy’s mother and siblings. “You could have gotten a payday, kid.”

“Shut up!” Jack screamed at him. He put his hand on his dad’s shoulder and pushed him back and forth. Ian’s head rolled from side to side.

Stacy motioned to her mother. Candy glared at her daughter then came up behind Larry on his left. “Well,” she said.

“I already talked to Divergent. They hung up on me,” Larry said with a shrug.

“Well, what’s it going to take?” Candy said.

“Does he have an accountant?” Larry asked.

Ian took a deep breath and stood up. His head was a sleepy jumble. Something ominous hung over him. There was something bad going on. It was right at the edge of his consciousness but it wouldn’t materialize. “Let’s get some lunch, Jack, shall we?” He grabbed Jack’s hand and turned to exit the bench row.

Larry blocked his path. “Ian, we need to talk. You owe me a billion dollars.”

Ian’s face contorted into a look of ridicule. “Are you stupid? I don’t owe you a damned thing.”

Larry’s lawyer walked up. He held his open briefcase in one hand, his suit jacket clumsily draped over it. His chest and armpits featured dark spots and his tie was pulled down to just above where his gut began. His shirt tails hung outside of his pants. “You have lost the case, Mr. Blake. Are you able to comprehend what I am saying?” He burped then snapped his fingers in front of Ian’s face.

It came rolling back to Ian. He lost. His lawyer said so. He could appeal, of course. No, they already denied it. Larry and his government connections. Larry and the anti-tech movement. How? The thought reverberated inside his mind.

Larry’s lawyer produced a document. “Sign here, Mr. Blake and we can settle this matter right now. You can be on your way, free and clear. This document transfers title of your rights in the Maria robot invention to Mr. Kunkle and in return Mr. Kunkle agrees to not just consider your debt to him fully paid but to also provide you with an income stream sufficient to fund a minimal but wholly acceptable standard of living for the rest of your natural life.”

“The rest of my natural life,” Ian muttered.

“That’s correct, sir, and is currently estimated at five years.” The lawyer handed him a pen. “Just sign at the bottom. I’m sure your lovely wife and eldest son will serve as appropriate witnesses.”

“What about our share?” Stacy asked. “We deserve our share now, too.”

The lawyer kept his eyes on Ian, the pen in his outstretched hand.

Ian reached for the contract.

Jack pulled at his father’s shirt. “Don’t sign, Dad! Don’t do it.”

Michael pushed past the lawyer and grabbed Jack. He pulled him over the rear of the bench and cupped a hand over his mouth. “Shut up, you little rat,” Michael said.

Jack fought and kicked.

Ian looked up at the lawyer. A normal flow returned to his movement as he grabbed the contract and the pen. “So I just sign this and Larry leaves me alone. Forever. Right?”

The lawyer nodded. “Absolutely. You can continue dealing with me in order to get your monthly allowance.”

Everything else fell away. He didn’t hear his sons fighting. He didn’t notice Larry and Candy laughing or Stacy smacking Larry’s free hand away from her. All he saw was the paper, the pen and the word ‘allowance’. Larry will give me an allowance. Of course.

What? He looked at the pen and paper again and knew what he had to do.

Ian ripped up the contract and threw the pen into the lawyer’s face. He looked at Larry. “I don’t know how you did this. I may have to pay you but you will never control Maria. You will never own anything that I create, not again.”

Jack kicked Ian’s leg. Ian turned and glared at Michael. “Get your hands off my son!” he yelled.

Michael let go and backed away.

“Come on, Jack.” Ian held his hand out to him over the back of the bench.

Jack took a step toward his father, then turned and punched Michael between his legs. Michael fell to the ground.

Ian pushed Larry and the lawyer out of his way, grabbed his son’s hand and left the room.

“You’ll pay for this Ian!” Larry yelled. “I will make you pay through your teeth. And then I’ll break your goddamned superior teeth!”

&“After paying the judgment&, fees, taxes and my fee, of course, this is how much you have left.” The lawyer passed a slip of paper across his desk to Ian, who sat directly opposite him.

Ian took the note and looked at it. All the zeroes were gone now. He looked out the window behind his lawyer – a new one, different from the incompetent boob who got him into this financial holocaust. A few flying cars passed among the skyscrapers in front of a cloudless, shiny blue sky. Nowhere to hide.

“I’ll see that it is deposited into your account. We’ve paid Mr. Kunkle and have the receipt on file, so you needn’t worry about that.” He looked up from the paperwork and studied Ian.

Ian sat slouched into the chair, his chest sunken in, his face blank and distant.

“What are your plans now, Mr. Blake? Surely a talented mind such as yours will come up with something new and exciting. We stand ready to protect you in the future, should you invent something, of course.”

Ian closed his eyes.

&Ian opened his eyes&. The bar was dark, the walls nearly black. The booths wooden with greasy, gray cushions loosely tied onto them. It felt natural, like a cave inside a tree, at night. But it stank of heroin, cheap beer and raw sewage. Ian finished off his mug of watery beer in one, long gulp.

People moved around him but Ian took no notice of them. His mind was numb. Everything had been taken from him: his job, his accomplishments, his wife, his children, his invention, his money, his pride and dignity, his trust of the world – except for Jack. Jack he still had. He’s a good boy. So young and yet he made those flittering, talking robots. Inside he laughed but the laugh died before it could escape his dark, leaden mind.

A bone-thin woman in her underwear approached his table. “Swax,” she whispered. “A hundred a hit.” She walked in circles near Ian’s booth then threw herself onto the bench across from him. “Swax, pilgrim – you need it! Just a hundred a hit. Best deal all day.”

Ian put his hand over the top of his glass. “Refill,” he yelled. To the woman, he said, “I want to be alone.”

“How about a trick, baby? Whatever you want, I can do it. Backwards, forwards, upside down. Which way you swing? I can even be your backend, baby.” She leered at him, her mouth almost empty of teeth, the gums blackened, the skin around her eyes cracked and dirty.

Ian turned away in disgust. “I’m broke,” he said.

“Revenge,” she said. She lifted her eyebrows at him.

Ian scowled at her and motioned with his head for her to leave. “Refill!” he yelled towards the bar.

“Look around this bar,” the toothless woman said with a sweep of her hand. “Many men and no jobs but lots of skills. Rare skills, useful skills. Just tell me what you want.”

“Leave me alone.” He turned to the bar. “What’s it take to get a refill!”

“You have an enemy. All I need is a name and a thousand dollars in cash.” She leaned forward and looked at his eyes.

Ian avoided her stare and sat back into the hard wood of the booth. A thousand dollars. He had a thousand dollars – and change. He could give this woman the money and Larry’s name. He could be done with Larry forever. He let the thought roll around in his head. He savored it like a fine chunk of roast beef, smothered in gravy. His stomach rumbled.

The waitress swung by and dropped a fresh mug of beer on the rough-hewn wooden table top. “This one’s dangerous,” she said with a nod to the toothless revenge peddler.

“I need a menu,” Ian said. The waitress walked away without responding. His stomach gurgled and clenched up.

“Hunter, baby, come on over here,” the toothless woman said in the direction of the bar.

A small, dark figure approached them, glass in hand.

“Have a seat, baby,” she said.

Hunter eased himself heavily into the booth next to the girl. He took a sip of his yellowish mixed drink and regarded Ian with greasy, fat-lidded eyes. “Who’s this?” he asked and tilted his glass in Ian’s direction.

“A potential client. Were you satisfied with our services, baby?” She laid a scarred hand on his shoulder and let it rest there.

Hunter narrowed his eyes at Ian. “Somebody causing you trouble? Anita here, she knows all the right people. She’s the Amazon of revenge: cheap and knows all the suppliers. Can’t go wrong.” He took a gulp of his drink and chewed on the ice.

The sharp crunches made Ian twitch. “How?” he asked.

“Any way you want, baby doll,” Anita said. “Chainsaw, cyanide, electrocution. It all depends on how slow and how painful you want it. We got all the time in the world to make your man suffer. How long do you want it?”

“Very,” Ian said. He gulped his beer.

Anita grinned. “How painful?”

“Very.”

“It might be a little extra,” she said.

“All I have is a thousand,” he said. “He stole the rest.”

“Finder’s fee is ten percent, cutiepie.”

“Finder’s fee?” Ian asked.

Anita rolled her eyes. “Pain leads to profit. How much does he have?”

“He got it all.”

“All we need is—”

Ian looked at Hunter. “How come you’re still here?”

Hunter shrugged and frowned his non-answer. He folded his hands neatly on the table and laid his chin on them.

“Hunter’s alright,” the woman said. “All we need is a name. You can even come with us.”

Ian sat back and slugged down some more beer. His mug was almost empty again. “You’re cops, right?” He smiled.

Anita pulled her lips apart. “Cops have dental plans.”

A tiny little voice in the back of his head said no, but the alcohol drowned it out. He got up and steadied himself with one hand on the table. “Hunter here can go back to whatever he was doing.”

Anita stayed in the booth. “I need the name before anything else.”

“Larry Kunkle.”

&The drone hovered high up&. Ian lost sight of it. Next to him was Anita. Hunter controlled the drone.

“I thought you were just a customer,” Ian said. His head hurt and his stomach felt simultaneously light and heavy. His mouth was dry and he had to go to the bathroom.

They ignored him.

Ian sat down on the ground with his back to the building wall. On the other side of the high chain-link fence that delimited this narrow right of way was the street. It was dirty here: instant food wrappers, drink cups, needles, little foil packets and the stink of thick urine. He put his hands to his temples and rubbed. “What the hell am I doing?” he mumbled.

A police aircar zipped down the street in front of him. It actually had real police in it. One looked in Ian’s direction and Ian turned away. Oh great, that’ll arouse their suspicion for sure. I’m horrible at crime!

Anita crouched down next to him, her screen out and unfolded. It was video of Larry inside his apartment. “This is live,” she whispered.

The police aircar zipped around again. It stopped a hundred meters down the road from them and faced up at the building where the drone was.

Ian focused on the video. Larry was gesticulating. His mouth was moving. “No audio?”

“Hunter?” Anita said.

Hunter narrowed his eyes. “I thought this was a pure recon-kill mission. Are we a go?”

“He just wants to listen. It’s his dime,” Anita said.

Hunter groaned. He touched his finger to his screen and upped the volume setting.

“I did what you wanted,” Larry said. “It’s enough.”

“What about the other side of the conversation?” Ian asked. His stomach rumbled. He was famished, thirsty and really had to go to the bathroom now.

Hunter stared off in the general direction of the cops, who were still just sitting there. Anita elbowed him roughly.

“What? You’ve got your audio feed,” the mustached man said.

“What about the other side of the conversation?” she loud-whispered.

“I don’t want to hurt him anymore,” Larry said.

“Shh,” Ian said. Hunter and Anita went silent and watched with him.

“I took everything from him, just like you wanted. He’s done. Let him have his kid and his—” Larry paused to listen. “Then let’s give him a job. He certainly needs one now!”

“Who’s he talking to?” Ian asked.

Anita shrugged.

“Leave the kid alone,” Larry said with a jerk of his hand. “Jack is a good kid. He’s smart. He’ll be a national asset someday. Just hire him, he’ll probably work for us.” He paused and his face contorted. “If you hurt him, I will… I’ll do something! This relationship goes two ways, you know! I can blow the whistle any time I like.”

Ian’s heart skipped a beat. He sat back down on the ground, his face slack. Jack. Who would want to hurt Jack?

“You have it already!” Larry said. “I made the transfer per your instructions. Where the hell am I going to go? Give me a little credit. You have effective control of the robot, too. Leave Ian and his family alone already. They’re beaten.”

Ian pulled himself up. “Look, guys—”

The police aircar siren sounded and it took off in a wide, looping circle around Larry’s building.

“Are we gonna do this or not?” Hunter asked. “It’s now or never, but I get paid either way.”

Anita turned to Ian, her face expectant and almost salivating. She raised an eyebrow. “Decision time, champ.”

Ian stood up.

“Get down!” Anita loud-whispered.

Ian pulled his remaining cash out of his pocket. He peeled off five two-hundred dollar bills and handed them to Anita. “Let’s leave it here.”

Anita nodded. “Do him,” she said to Hunter.

“No, don’t kill him. Just let it go here,” Ian said. “We’re done, thank you very much. I really have to go. I never saw you, you never saw me, et cetera, et cetera.” He turned and took a step away from them.

“This kind of goes against our professional ethics,” Anita said.

Ian turned around. Professional ethics?

“We charge less for a simple surveillance op than for a revenge killing,” said Hunter.

“But we have a no refund policy,” Anita said.

Good lord. Ian rolled his eyes and ran a hand over his face. “Seriously, it’s okay. Look, there are cops here.”

“Shh,” Anita said. “Get down.”

Ian squatted. “And, uh, I need more information. I want to think this over. It’s too soon, yes, definitely.” He looked at them. I hope this does it. “Okay?”

Anita and Hunt looked at each other. “A job that requires two visits will cost more.”

“Do I have to pay you now?” Ian asked. Killers with professional ethics. I do hope this is the low point of my day. No, it can’t get any worse.

“We charge interest on past due amounts,” Anita said. Her mouth hung open and she regarded Ian as if he was an idiot asking how to turn on a light.

Ian pinched his legs together and willed his urinary tract deeper into his body. His head pounded. “Whatever, that’s fine.” He turned, rounded the corner and was gone.

&The lights went out&. Ian’s screen switched over to battery power. He sat in his office plotting his next move. A cheap hotel with just the bare minimum of personal possessions. That was his only move.

Jack slouched into Ian’s office and looked for somewhere to sit down. He finally dropped onto the hard floor and reclined uncomfortably against a wall. “We have to bring my robots, Dad. We have to. We just have to.” He threw up his hands and let them slap to the floor.

“Please be gentle to yourself. This is a minor setback. You still have a long and prosperous life ahead of you,” Ian said.

“Are we really going to split up?” Jack’s voice cracked. “I know they’re jerks but they’re still our family.”

“Larry’s sharing some of my money with them so they’ll be fine. You should just go with them and I’ll visit you. It’ll be fine.”

“But I love you, Dad, and they’re all jerks!”

“I can’t pay for the electricity for your quantum computer. I can’t fund your robots, not until I get back on my feet.” And how am I going to do that? The panic engulfed him and he erupted in cold sweat. I already sold a kidney. I can’t sell another one… unless I build a dialysis machine. That might work. “But Larry and your mother can.”

“What if Larry steals my robots, too?”

Ian thought about that one. That’s a definitely possibility. But he said nothing. At least he’ll eat and live in a decent place and go to his school.

A new message arrived from Anselm Academy. He brought it up.

“Dear Mr. And Mrs. Blake, We regret to inform you that due to your past due bill of $16,542, representing two months of tuition for your son Jack, we find ourselves obligated to terminate the student’s educational privileges. Please do not send him to school until this matter has been resolved.”

Damn.

Jack put a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Is that from my school?”

Ian archived the message with a quick movement of his index finger. “Huh? Yeah, don’t worry about it.”

“Did they expel me?” Jack asked.

Ian closed his eyes. “We’ll fix it.”

“No, you won’t.” Jack collapsed in place and sobbed.

Ian turned around and rubbed the boy’s head. “I promise you, we will fix this.” He put on his serious face and showed as much confidence as he could muster. I might not be able to fix this. But he doesn’t need to know that right now. He needs to be strong and believe that things can improve, because if we give in then we’re definitely screwed. The line between success and failure was always thin but it was thinner now than ever. Lose your mental edge and you had nothing.

&“What do you mean&, you’re not going to pay us? You promised us that! We kept our side of it! We testified against him. We lied for you, Larry!” Candy screamed into her screen.

Ian stood at the doorway to his office and listened. If I only had some money to buy popcorn. Then this moment would be perfect.

“Larry,” Candy said. She took a deep breath. “We placed our trust in you.”

Ian covered his mouth and snickered. The comeuppance is sweet. Bittersweet but still sweet.

“You are the father of two of my children. You owe—” she started.

Ian strained to hear anything of the other side of the conversation as she was using an earbud.

“I will sue you for child support! I will get a DNA test and you will have to pay back support, too. You’ll owe Ian money!”

For once, Candy’s working for me. He shook his head in admiration of the ironic reversal.

“Larry, you will not— Don’t you dare!” Candy screamed her frustrated rage. “You bastard!” Her high heels clacked their way to the kitchen floor and she opened the refrigerator. “And nothing to eat, either!” She slammed the door, opened the freezer and pulled out a bottle. Ian heard the telltale glugs of vodka traversing Candy’s esophagus.

The doorbell rang. “What now?” Candy mumbled. She replaced the tubular bottle roughly into the freezer and opened the door. “The movers! Already? Jesus Christ!”

Ian looked at the eviction order on his screen. Twenty years. This was their home. But he didn’t have a family anymore. They’d work out the divorce. Michael and Stacy weren’t his and didn’t value him. Jack. That was all he had left from those twenty years. That was where his focus must now lie.

Ian rolled up his screen and stuffed it into his pants pocket. He set his backpack on his shoulders. It was heavy and bit into his shoulders. All of his remaining possessions were in it. He was homeless now, at least until he made it to the hotel.

He pulled the straps on the backpack. It rose higher onto his shoulder blades but his upper back twinged. He took one look back at his office. I planned to do so much work here with not just Maria but also Jack and his robots. That will never happen now, at least not here.

He took a step towards the kitchen. His gut was a tight weighty mass. He was walking away from his family. It’s a little late in life to start over, Ian. How the hell did you get here?

Candy appeared in front of him. She stepped unevenly on her heels and almost crashed. “You’d better supervise these moving bots! There’s a lot of valuable stuff here, you know!” She eyed him looking for support. She was sending out a tendril of feeling to see if someone would hold her hand through this.

“Not my problem,” Ian pushed past her. Jack stood in his way.

“Can you take my quantum computer? I don’t want the movers to break it.”

Ian shook his head. “I can’t. I’ll call you once I find a place.”

A deep crash and the tinkling of little pieces of metal and glass sounded in the living room.

“What was that?” Jack yelled. He ran past Ian.

Ian turned and looked over the breakfast bar. Jack’s computer wasn’t there. He leaned over the bar. The computer was in tiny multi-colored pieces all over the living room floor. One of the moving robots stepped on a chunk of computer. The crunch of expensive quantum shards against the hard floor made Ian grit his teeth and tense his neck.

“Get off my computer!” Jack pushed the robot. It stopped and swatted Jack into the sofa before continuing along.

Candy came into the kitchen and took another slug of vodka.

An overweight man with a lazy eye walked in holding a screen. “Uh,” he said, “we’re not responsible for breakage, okay? It says so in the contract, not sure if you noticed that or not. Sorry about that,” he said with sincerity. He shrugged and frowned.

Candy slammed the freezer. Ian tensed and looked behind him.

“What? Got something to say?” she asked. She took another long draught of the nearly empty vodka bottle, spilling some on the floor.

Another robot entered and pulled the fridge out from the corner. Ian scuttled out of its way.

The robot crouched down, then expanded upwards heaving the refrigerator onto its mobile platform. But it stuck midway into the air and beeped.

The lazy-eyed supervisor trotted over. “You emptied the fridge and defrosted it per the agreement instructions, right?” He raised an eyebrow at Ian.

Ian waved his hands in front of him. “No idea.”

Jack picked himself up and looked at his father, his face slack and near sobbing. “Dad…”

Ian offered him a hug and the boy accepted, wrapping his little arms tightly around his father’s neck.

“We’ll figure this out, get you a new one, or rent time on one. Something,” Ian said.

Candy pushed past the paralyzed robot and stood in the living room, facing Jack. Ian turned to look at her. Her eyes were red and puffy. There was a nervous energy about her.

She smiled. “No more of that ‘special school’ for Jacky, huh?” She used air quotes and laughed.

Jack stared at her with a vulnerable hate in his eyes. His mouth started to frown.

Ian put out a hand to silence her.

“He’ll just have to go to a normal school, like the rest of the world and give up his delusions of grandeur.” The last word she said in a whiny voice that grated Ian’s already tight nerves.

“Jack is special,” Ian started.

“Yeah, special. Just like everyone else!” Candy yelled. She threw the now-empty vodka bottle on top of the quantum computer bits. The unbreakable container bounced then rolled slowly towards the front door.

Something snapped in the kitchen. “Alright, got it,” the supervisor said. “It triggered a weight limit but I overrode it.” The robot powered up.

“Don’t worry about her,” Ian told Jack. “Why don’t you go check your room, make sure there’s nothing left behind?” Ian clapped the boy on the back and wiped tears from his cheeks.

“Yeah,” the supervisor said from the kitchen, “it just has to take a couple steps and then it’ll have that fridge outta here.”

Ian stood up and nodded to the man. He watched the robot step forward, the fridge almost brushing the ceiling.

Jack stopped at the intersection of the kitchen, entry hallway and the hallway leading to the bedrooms. “I love you, Dad,” the boy said.

The moving robot took another step forward. It landed on the unbreakable vodka bottle. The foot rolled and the heavy machine, together with the full refrigerator, fell straight over to the right, catching Jack underneath.

Raw panic gripped Ian. He threw himself to the floor and dug his hands under the refrigerator. He pulled and jammed his arm under it. Jack lay without moving underneath. His thighs were caught under the mass.

“Jack, Jack!” Ian turned his head towards the kitchen. “Get the robot up! Get it up!”

“Oh shit!” the supervisor mumbled. “That’s not supposed to happen!”

Ian got his arm under the refrigerator up to the shoulder. He wrapped his hand around the unconscious boy’s leg as far down as he could grab it. He then rotated his forearm down and pushed up with his elbow as the fulcrum of the lever.

Jack’s body squirmed and jittered but his eyes stayed closed.

“Not a brain injury, please. Not a brain injury,” Ian mumbled. “Anything but that.” He pushed harder but the weight was unbearable. He grunted. His palm was soaking wet and kept slipping up the boy’s leg. “Get this fucking robot off my son!”

Something crashed next to Ian and the weight on his arm lightened.

“I got the robot off but the fridge is too heavy. You gotta help me,” the supervisor said.

A wave of irritation engulfed him. Why do I have to do everything myself? And where the hell is his mother? “I can’t! Just pick it up!”

The supervisor picked the refrigerator up slightly and then pulled it straight towards him, dragging Jack along with it. Jack woke up, still twitching, and screamed, his eyes wide.

“Stop!” Ian yelled. “You’re just making it worse! You’re dragging him!”

The supervisor set it down and Ian’s arm slipped. The full weight of the fridge fell once again on Jack and he screamed.

“Dad, help me! Dad!”

Ian jammed a large chunk of the broken quantum computer under the fridge next to his son’s chest. He rushed over to the supervisor’s side, bumping him out of the way. He got his fingers below the fridge and heaved it up. “Crawl out, Jack. Crawl out,” he whispered. He motioned to the supervisor. “Help him!”

The supervisor limped over to where Jack was and pulled the boy out.

Ian let the fridge crash down. Stupid piece of shit. Why was it so full? Ian looked in the open door. A dozen full vodka bottles greeted him. He rushed to his boy’s side, pushing the supervisor out of his way again.

Jack was unconscious and still.

“Candy! Call 911 now!” Ian put his hand on the boy’s neck and felt nothing. “Is this how you do it?” he asked the supervisor.

The man shrugged.

Ian stood up. He turned left, then right. “It’s all because of these fucking robots!” He walked over to his Maria, grabbed her head and ripped it off in one clean swipe.

He dropped the head to the floor. I’m going to kill all of these damned things, every single fucking one!

10

Ian and Jack sat at their respective desks on opposite sides of a large picture window in their Center City hotel room. The pair tapped away at their screens.

Behind them, there was a small bed for each. Beyond the beds, Marias delivered and stacked pink plastic boxes from floor to ceiling.

“I want to finish this today,” Ian said to Jack.

Jack muted his music. “Dad, relax already. Geez! I checked over the self-sufficiency module and only found a few mistakes.”

A look of outraged shock came over Ian’s face. “There were no mistakes in that – unless you introduced them.” He did his best to suppress the grin welling up from inside. He’s so cocky!

“Ha! As if,” said Jack, “And I’ll have the search-and-destroy update ready for you to check in about another fifteen minutes.”

“It’s taking too long, Jack. We have a schedule here,” Ian said.

“Then let me get back to work!” Jack said. He unmuted his music.

“Wait,” said Ian, “what about the modules we’re actually contracted to deliver? Are they all there?”

“It’s all in the repository, Dad.” Jack sighed and shook his head. “He’s getting senile!”

Senile? Am I? He looked around. What was I working on again? “Oh, right,” he muttered. Ian raised his fingers to the keyboard when one of Jack’s robots zipped down and flittered in front of him.

“Your current project is to hide the search-and-destroy—” the little robot started.

Ian shushed it.

“Okay, then,” it said, “Be a good boy now and do your work. You are smart, driven and conscientious. The world is your oyster! You can do anything!” It zipped away to Jack’s desk.

“The world is your oyster? Where did you dig up that old fossil of a phrase?” said a voice behind Ian.

Ian turned around. Larry stood in the doorway, blocking the Marias from entering. They beeped in the hallway.

“So, Divergent felt sorry for you, huh? Threw you a little programming job of a bone?” Larry asked. He stepped into the room and crossed his arms, still blocking the Marias.

Ian narrowed his eyes. “Just get out, Larry.” Why at this critical moment does he show up? Does he know?

Larry stepped closer. “We’re going to outlaw that soon. You won’t be able to work for Divergent anymore, at least not without a permit, which the Bureau—” he cleared his throat “—will not approve for you.”

An ironic smirk crept onto Ian’s face.

“We know you’re working on something,” Larry said. “Something illicit or unseemly. We’ve got it figured out.”

A thread of panic crept up Ian’s spine and detoured into his gut. We went over security a dozen times. How did he figure it out? He raised an eyebrow, attempting to keep calm by taking on a superior air.

One of Jack’s Dadbots flew down from the high ceiling and parked itself in front of Larry’s face. “And who do we have here? A new boy, is it? What do you want to be when you grow up?” the bot said.

Larry burst out laughing. “That is so cute! Brilliant!” He calmed himself. “You won’t be able to sell this to Divergent now. We stood up a regulation about that after your last stunt.”

Ian shrugged.

Larry took several steps towards him and bent forward. “Let me invest in it. Please?”

How dare he? Ian gritted his teeth. “Pay Candy and the kids first. Then we’ll talk about it.”

“They won’t authorize that,” Larry said, and shrugged.

“‘They’?” Ian asked.

“Look,” Larry said, “we can mass produce these as toys for all the little neglected kids out there who want more time with their dads. And for the dads who don’t want to spend more time with their whiny little brats.”

Ian rolled his eyes but listened attentively. He was enjoying every moment. He thinks he has the upper hand. Delicious!

“It’ll teach kids all those lessons you wanted to teach Jack. It’ll be your legacy as a father, Ian! Surely you can get on board with that?”

Ian grunted a wry smile, his head bobbing up and down. He turned around. “I need to get back to work and you are blocking my Marias.” He tried to remember what he was working on but the nagging presence of Larry left him uneasy.

Larry came up behind Ian and put his hands on Ian’s shoulders. With a quick flick of a finger, Ian put the screen to sleep, thus hiding what he was working on from Larry’s prying eyes.

“I can even get you a job,” Larry said.

“Why would I need a job?” Ian asked. He shrugged his shoulders hard and pushed his chair back into Larry.

“Ow! You ran over my toe!” Larry said.

Ian turned around and glared at him. “I told you to get out.”

“Another lawsuit? Is that what we want?” he asked Ian in a baby voice. “Is that what little Ian-nini wants? Because big old Uncle Larry can certainly oblige him.” His raised his eyebrows and made his eyes clownishly wide.

“Assuming I was to sell you this tech, that implies money in my hand.” Ian held out his left palm and pointed to it. “Therefore, no job needed.”

“I would expect more of a profit-sharing agreement. Royalties and such – on profits of course. But this would be more of a non-profit operation.” Larry smiled, high on himself. “It would all be for a good cause,” he continued, with mock sincerity. “Children need loving attention and support in order to grow up right.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Ian said. He looked over at Jack and exchanged a knowing smile.

“We have a better plan,” Jack said with a mischievous smile.

Ian shook his head and scowled. Jack rolled his eyes.

“Over at the Bureau, you know, we’ve had our eyes on you two for awhile. What is all this junk you’re stockpiling?” Larry walked over to the boxes and pulled at one. The ones on top of it swayed above him.

“Don’t touch that!” Ian yelled. “Now I want you out and I’m about to call security on you.”

“Oh, never mind that,” Larry said with a backwards glance at Ian. “Some colleagues of mine are keeping them occupied.” He ran a finger across a row of boxes. “You could have been one of those colleagues. We didn’t have to fight like this.”

Ian chuckled.

Larry turned around. “Still able to laugh? That’s good. You’ve always been resilient.” He pulled a box out at random, set it on the ground and popped it open. The boxes that had been on top of it fell away from him towards the wall.

Ian stood up. “Larry, get your grubby little hands out of my—”

“Your what? What is all this?” Larry pulled a square-bottomed carton marked water out of the box and looked quizzically at Ian. “Do your faucets not work?”

“Put it back now!” Ian said. He took another step towards Larry.

Larry stood up with a flourish. “I have a theory! My theory is that you’re up to something, something serious, something worthy of your oversized brain but not good. It could even be really bad… for me. And the clues are here.” He put his hand to his chin and turned back to the boxes.

“Larry…” Ian started.

Larry grabbed two boxes in the middle of a column and pulled them towards Ian. The whole tower crashed down across the floor. One fell on Ian. Another two slammed into his screen and bounced away, cartons of water and packets of food and sundries spilling everywhere.

Larry picked up a tin can with pictures of carrots on it. “You’ve lost your mind!”

“We’re going camping, okay Larry? Happy now?” Ian said.

Larry tossed the can to the floor. He shook his head and wagged his finger at Ian as he walked closer to the man. “You’re not going camping, Ian. No, that’s the old Ian Blake, the meek Ian Blake. The Ian Blake that flowed with the current and did what he was told. That Ian Blake would run and hide in the forest but not this one.”

“I’ve learned my lesson,” Ian said. “That’s all there is to it.”

“Convince me,” Larry said.

“You took my family, my business, my invention… I just don’t want to lose anything else,” Ian said.

“I took your credit too, for saving that baby. Remember?” Larry looked down at him and smiled. His eyes sunk deep into the dark circles below them.

Ian shrugged in surrender. “You are clearly the superior bureaucrat.”

“I take pride in being a good bureaucrat. I know that’s a bad word for you. But the bureaucracy is about serving people through directing them to what you know is good for them. And that means robots. I can’t do my job without them.”

“Look, you knocked some stuff down, you gloated… Can you leave us alone now? Surely you have some other entrepreneur or inventor to nationalize. You’ve got all we have.” Ian turned and sat down at his desk. He tapped at his screen. “Look, you damaged my screen. I think you got your pound of flesh for today.”

Jack turned to his father and removed an earbud. “I got it, Dad. The search-and-destroy module is done! Can you…” He trailed off after taking in the slack look on his father’s face. The boy looked back and saw Larry.

Larry’s face brightened. “You’re planning a terrorist attack, aren’t you?” He put his hand in his pocket. “The police are on their way. I knew there was something going on here!” He walked towards the door, then turned heel and strode towards Ian. “I got you! Didn’t I?”

Ian, resigned, stood up, walked over to Larry and decked him. Larry fell backwards into the boxes. Several columns of the plastic boxes swayed under his impact and collapsed on top of him.

Policebots – they were nothing more than hardened Marias with tasers – swarmed into the room. “Halt, Ian Blake. Halt or we will fire,” they said.

Ian ran to his desk, sat down and tried to get his screen to work. It flickered on and he started to type.

An overweight, reclining policeman in a floating scooter pushed his way into the room. “Step away from the keyboard, sir. We know all about you and we have this building surrounded.”

The police-Marias approached him and pulled him up out of the chair, Ian still grasping the keyboard.

“Please don’t resist any further, sir,” said the reclining cop. “I know you don’t want your son to get hurt.”

Jack got up from his desk and limped towards his father but a police-Maria blocked him and the boy fell backwards onto his butt.

Ian placed his hands behind his back and stopped resisting.

11

Ian gestured to his son with a quick nod in the direction of his computer. Jack limped back and sat down. He looked over at his father.

Ian nodded to him slowly.

“Are you sure?” Jack mouthed.

Ian nodded more quickly now. The Policebots stood around him, their tasers aimed at different points on his body.

“Did you know, Officer…?” started Ian.

“LeGrange,” the cop said.

“Officer LeGrange, did you know that these bots are just modified versions of my domestic helper robots, the Maria models?” Ian asked him. His knees, calves and thighs began to ache. He wasn’t used to kneeling, and certainly not on a hard floor.

The cop ignored him and looked at Larry. “What are we doing here?”

“It’s not yours anymore, remember?” He turned to the cop. “I want him arrested. He struck me. That should be enough to hold him until we can crack and analyze his recent activities.”

Officer LeGrange rolled his eyes. “I don’t care about his alleged hitting you. You’re in his room! I heard him ask you to leave. Sounds justified to me. And I see no justification to search the man’s—”

Larry pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and threw it at the cop. “I have an official federal warrant for this man’s arrest on terrorism charges, to include a seizure of all his accounts—”

“I’m local. Get your fed friends to do this. I don’t need the extra paperwork,” Officer LeGrange said.

“Dad,” Jack said. “I don’t think we should do this.”

Ian looked at him skeptically. You should be able to expect a little more loyalty from your kids. He glared at Jack.

“Read the warrant!” Larry screamed. Spittle flew from his mouth. His face was red. “You are temporarily federalized and under my command! Now arrest this man and seize everything here!”

“Alright, geez, calm down. Bots, arrest this man,” Officer LeGrange said. “Take the boy into protective custody. Cordon off this room and take everything to the one-four for processing and federal handover. Execute. Stand by for further orders.”

“Now, son,” Ian said.

“Dad…” Jack said.

Ian shrugged. “It’s now or never.”

“What if somebody gets hurt?” Jack asked.

Ian looked at his screen. It was still flickering. He twitched his head and the earbud beeped. “Voice command: Execute gamma-three-two-four.” The reply came back in his ear: “Program executed.”

Ian stood up and faced the cop.

“Secure the prisoner,” the cop said.

The Policebots raised their hands.

“Protect!” Ian yelled.

The Policebots lowered their hands and pointed their tasers at Officer LeGrange and Larry.

“What the hell!” Officer LeGrange said. “Secure the prisoner, Policebots!”

Larry took a step back, his face registering shock.

The cop reached at his side for his firearm and pulled it out. A Policebot jumped at him. The cop fired. The bullet struck the Policebot in the chest with a thick clang. It grabbed the cop’s pistol and, using both hands, bent it in half until the plastic cracked and the metal popped off onto the floor with a light tinkling sound.

“Dad! I’m scared!” Jack yelled. He limped off his chair and hid behind his desk.

“Standby mode,” Ian said. “Remove these handcuffs, Maria,” he said.

It quickly complied and Ian rubbed his wrists as he headed over to Jack. He kneeled down, picked the boy up and hugged him. “It’s fine, don’t worry. This is nothing new.” Ian turned back to look at Larry and the cop.

“Do you really think this is the right thing to do, Dad?” Jack asked.

“We’ll be able to spend more time together,” Ian said without looking at him.

“Nobody’s going to get hurt though, right?” Jack asked. He looked at the back of his hand and rubbed the burn scar.

Ian grew concerned. “You’ve been hurt by the robots.” He felt a deep internal pain at the idea that his robots had hurt the boy. “You got burnt. One fell on top of you.”

Jack nodded.

“The Marias are programmed specifically to not hurt anyone,” Ian said.

From outside the sound of explosions and marching feet reached them. Jack’s eyes got big. “Is that…?”

Ian looked out the window. A group of Marias marched down the center of the street, five abreast. There were at least a dozen rows. At random intervals, individual Marias peeled off. They ripped surveillance cameras from streetlights, raided businesses and tore computers from parked cars and passersby.

“What about the old people, Dad? And the babies? They need technology to stay alive.”

“I programmed temporary exceptions for them,” Ian said. “But the rest of it goes. The robots and the gaming tech, the whole thing – it’s killing our very souls, son. There is no point in being alive if we are only bags of blubber, our minds dulled, our senses deadened. Then we’re not human anymore.”

The frenzied clacks of automatic gunfire reached their ears. Ian and Jack looked outside. Blue-suited men with rifles were gunning down the Marias. A man in plainclothes ran towards them dragging an axe behind him.

The cop spoke up. “They’re killing your robot army out there, chief.” He smirked. “And they’re hearing and seeing everything that takes place in this room.”

&Ian stared down Officer LeGrange&. “They won’t come in here because this is a hostage situation for them, right?”

LeGrange looked away.

Ian laughed. “That’s what I—” His earbud rang. He recognized it as a phone call but the tone was wrong. He assumed it was due to the damage Larry caused his screen. He picked up the screen and dusted it off. He gave it the gesture to answer. The line opened but Ian said nothing.

“Hello,” a cultured male voice said.

Ian thought he recognized that voice but couldn’t place it. “Who is this?”

“Is this Ian Blake?” the voice asked.

“What do you want!” Ian asked. He started to sweat. His plan was far from foolproof. There were a lot of variables involved with two billion robots and nine billion people. It was inevitable that he hadn’t accounted for them all.

“I’d like to talk to you about your magnificent invention. May I call you Ian?” he asked.

Ian said nothing. He organized his keyboard and put his screen back on its stand. He had to be ready. They could regain access at any time.

“Ian, this is the President, Ronald Ingram. We need to work this out.”

“Wow, that was quick,” Ian said. He watched his ‘robot army’ march down the street. Getting them to coordinate and lineup like that hadn’t been easy and he was impressed with himself for getting it right. Its numbers were growing and SWAT couldn’t shoot them fast enough to make a dent. They just kept coming.

“Ian, I won’t kid you. Your robots have changed the nature of our world. We depend on them and we depend on the technology your army is currently destroying. I’m prepared to use force to get your cooperation.”

A red light glinted in Ian’s eye then moved down to his chest.

“But,” the President continued, “I’d rather have your obvious brilliance and determination working for the planet, rather than, well, six feet under it.”

Ian looked down at the dot.

“Is there any way we can achieve that, Ian?” the President asked.

Ian laughed nervously. “We’re definitely on the same page as far as me staying alive and working for the good of humanity,” Ian said. His body started to shake and he wanted to sit down. He jumped away from the window, found his chair and sat down in the corner.

“We can still neutralize you at any moment, Ian. Your heat signature is very clear. Please don’t make any more sudden moves.”

Ian looked around the room. Time slowed down. Everything got heavy.

“I know all about you and Larry, the baby you saved—” the President started.

“Larry took the credit for that and then fired me,” Ian said. “Can you believe that?”

“Absolutely, Ian. This kind of deception is a daily occurrence in politics.”

“Oh,” Ian said.

“And I don’t destroy the world over it.”

Ian nodded and frowned. “Okay, this is a little different though.”

“I know about your family problems. Your wife lied to you. I know about your time spent in the sub-basement and your brilliant work on the Marias. “We’ve had our eye on you for quite some time now. Really impressive,” the President said.

“Thank you, I sup-- You’ve had your eye on me? So you engineered the theft of my work? Larry’s win in court? The pre-emptive denial of my appeal?”

The President was silent.

Ian fumed. “What do you want?”

“First, we’re a bit worried about premature infant wards at the hospitals,” the President said.

“I’ve excepted them. Hospitals, too,” Ian said. “It’s a general exception though so it’s not going to be perfect. About ninety-five percent.”

“Can we get that up at all?” the President asked.

“No. Can we get to it?”

“Money.”

“How much?” Ian asked.

“I should ask you that,” the President said.

“Hmm, no,” Ian said.

“A university appointment with a generous expense account and lots of adulation from students, academics and society in general – the credit you deserve, Ian. You’re the hero today, you stopped this. And Larry is the evil man who initiated this chaos. Think of it! An international hero!”

“No! You don’t understand me at all,” Ian said. “Go back and try again! You have sixty seconds!” Ian cut the call. It immediately rang back and he silenced it.

&Something black flew& across the room from the cop to Larry. Ian turned his attention once more to his hostages. He focused on the cop, then on Larry.

Larry was pointing a gun at him.

“Where did you get that?” Ian asked.

“Turn it off, stop it!” Larry yelled.

“I would prefer not to,” Ian said. He looked at Jack. The boy huddled in the corner and shook. I hope it doesn’t traumatize him for too long. Poor kid. Maybe I overestimated what he can do.

The phone rang again.

“Answer it!” Larry yelled. His hands shook and his faced was contorted and sweaty.

Ian looked up, pretending to think.

Larry pointed the gun in Jack’s direction. “Now!

This bastard has no limits. That’s the difference between me and him. Ian accepted the call. “Ian’s Handy-Dandy Apocalypse here,” he answered.

“Ian, it’s Ronald Ingram again.”

“Oh, right, you’re the president of something?” Ian asked with a smirk.

Larry walked over and stood next to Jack. He pointed the gun at his head. “Take this seriously!”

“Like you took me seriously, Larry? You treat me like shit over and over again for decades but right now I’m supposed to make decisions based on your feelings?”

“Can I—” the President started.

Larry jammed the gun closer to the boy’s head. “No, make it based on my bullets.”

Ian looked at the cop. “You’re okay with this?”

The cop shrugged.

“Ian,” the President interjected, “as I was saying, can you please just stop this? Can you countermand the order? I’m told that soon we’re going to lose this connection – and then what? Then I won’t be able to help you, Ian. Then I can’t stop Larry from killing your son.”

“Fine,” Ian said. “Fine. You win.”

“Just like that?” the President asked.

Larry’s face brightened.

“Just like what? You have a gun on my son,” he whispered.

&“May I&?” Ian asked and pointed towards his desk.

Larry scowled at him.

“Let him do it,” the cop said.

“Why should I?” Larry asked. “What if he has some trick up his sleeve?”

“Mr. Blake, do you have a trick up your sleeve?” Officer LeGrange asked him.

Ian shrugged.

Larry touched the gun to the back of Jack’s head. Jack screamed and huddled himself more deeply into a ball.

“You’re an asshole, Larry. You always have been. You had better back off of my son right now,” Ian said.

“Or what?” Larry asked in a tone reminiscent of a snotty little girl.

Ian narrowed his eyes at him. “Ronald! Persuade the man!”

Officer LeGrange spoke up. “The President says to let him do it. He says we got no other option. If he screws it up, you have permission to kill him, but not the boy. Got it, Kunkle?”

Larry nodded.

Ian sat down at his desk, arranged his keyboard and cracked his knuckles.

“Get to it!” Larry screamed.

“If you insist,” Ian said. He typed feverishly, then hit return. “It’s done.”

The Policebots and Ian’s own Marias each sounded a long, simultaneous beep, then acrid, black smoke rose from their heads. Ian and Larry looked outside from opposite ends of the picture window. The column of robots stopped and a puff of smoke rose from each Maria.

Ian turned to Larry, smiled and nodded. “There you go!” He suppressed a chuckle.

“What does this mean?” Larry asked.

“I burned out the circuits responsible for software update,” Ian said. He walked over, collected his son and walked back to his side of the room. He sat back down on his desk chair and hugged the boy tight. Jack hugged him back.

“What does that mean!” Larry yelled.

“It means,” Ian said with an impatient roll of his head, “that their current programming is set. It’s permanent. No one can update the software on these robots again, at least not remotely.”

“You screwed us, didn’t you?” Larry yelled. He raised the gun and fired a shot.

Officer LeGrange drew another firearm. It was so quick that it confused Ian. He fired off several shots at Larry. Larry fell to the floor.

Ian smiled at Officer LeGrange then his smile faded as a woozy feeling came over him. He looked down at Jack. Blood gushed from his lower back. Ian jammed his hand over the wound and applied pressure. Ian was bleeding, too. The bullet had pierced them both.

“Did we do it, Dad? Did we save the world?” Jack whispered. “Dad,” he said more loudly and with irritation turning to panic, “my tummy hurts. Bad!” His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed against Ian’s chest.

“Jack? Jack!” Ian yelled. “No!”

12

“Please do not venture beyond the community perimeter,” a Maria said over the loudspeaker.

Ian stood up in the field and looked in the direction of the guard tower. His foot slid in the soft, tilled ground. He dug his foot in, set down his bag of seeds and walked around Stacy to get to the edge of the freshly-planted field.

“Dad, I need a break,” Stacy said. “I’m exhausted and I’m thirsty.”

Ian turned around and grinned. “If you need a break, just take it. This isn’t a prison. This is a community.” He turned back around and stomped up to the guard tower. “What’s going on here?”

A man turned around and dropped a cloth bag. It was Larry. He looked at the ground.

“Larry was attempting to take scrap metal out of the community,” said the Maria.

Ian rolled his eyes. “You’ll never learn, will you? Still trying to steal other people’s hard work?”

“I found it here and I need it, therefore it’s mine.” He looked up at Ian and his face turned red. “Now let me out of this prison!”

The Maria sounded the Bach-inspired melody and everyone moved out of the field and back towards the living area. Ian turned to watch children skip while holding hands with their parents. Adults smiled and laughed. This. This is it, exactly what I had in mind.

Ian turned back to the Maria. “Is it 10 AM already? Quitting time comes fast these days! Maria, is the play today?”

“No, Ian,” the Maria said, “it’s a puppet show for the kids before lunch, then quiet study time and finally a trip to the zoo for the rest of the afternoon before free time.”

“Oh,” Ian said. He frowned in approval. “Works for me!”

“The play is next week.”

“Excellent. I need more time to practice my part as a robot.” Ian laughed and moved his arms stiffly while inclining his head from side to side. He looked at Larry and sighed. “What are we going to do with you, Larry? What is it going to take?”

“Just let me have the stuff and I’m out of your hair. Done deal,” Larry said.

“You’ll just be back for more. Why don’t you join a community? There are so many to choose from,” Ian said.

Larry sat down and blubbered. “None of them will have me. They blackballed me. I’ve got nowhere to go!”

“Maria, have the kitchen staff bring Larry here some breakfast,” Ian said.

“Can I stay here?” Larry looked up at him, his frown deep and his eyes sincerely plaintive. “I mean, my family is here: Stacy, Michael, Michael’s kids… Candy.” He shrugged.

Ian shook his head. “Let’s not get any delusions of grandeur.”

A small yellow robot buzzed around Ian’s head and hovered a half-meter from his face. “Please remember to read one hour today, Ian. Did you do your exercise routine when you woke up this morning?”

Ian rubbed the side of his face with one hand. He groaned. “Darn it!”

“Please remember to do it later, and have a wonderful day! I’m off to remind your children now!” The flying robot zipped off towards the living quarters.

“Good luck with that!” Ian yelled after it. He looked back at Larry and searched his memory. “Right, Larry, no. No, you can not stay and that is the final word.”

“There should be a group decision. Or are you the king here?” Larry asked. He stood up and poked Ian in the chest. “That’s what you wanted all along, to deny everyone their fun so you can be in charge and control everything. You’re a sadist! A control freak! And a psychopath!”

Ian grabbed the bag from Larry and opened it. It was full of fresh bread, cheeses and even bottles of milk. Ian shook his head. “You are taking the food out of our mouths and yet you think you have a place here? Maria, see him out.”

Two Marias came from shacks at the sides of the gate entrance, took Larry by the arms and guided him out the front gate. Larry screamed, his eyes wild. He dragged his feet behind him. The Marias gently laid him down outside, re-entered and closed the gate behind them.

Larry lay face down in the dirt, pounding the ground with his fists and kicking it with his feet.

Ian took a moment to consider his old nemesis. He remembered back to when he blamed Larry for all of his problems and shook his head at himself. I was weak. I just needed to be strong.

&Ian walked back& towards the living center and admired the new field they’d just planted. Beyond it was a larger field and to the sides of it more fields and greenhouses. The community was industrious and it was prospering.

The white, one-story living areas were arranged in a long rectangle with the play areas in the middle, complete with swing sets and soccer goals. The baseball diamond was pending.

Beyond the living complex was forest. It was a dark forest. The children enjoyed exploring it but Ian didn’t like it. It was a good hiding place for thieves and other ill-intentioned people. He had to do something about it but he didn’t have the resources to tackle it anytime soon.

He found himself at the door to the clinic. Lost in deep thought again. He rolled his eyes at himself.

A young boy in denim overalls sat near the door, a blade of grass hanging from his mouth. He stared up into the clouds.

“What are you up to?” Ian asked him.

The boy eyed him suspiciously. “Just looking at the clouds, finding shapes and stuff. Is that okay?”

Ian gave him a thumbs up. “Keep it up!”

He pushed through the swinging doors and turned left, then right. He entered the small, sunny office and smiled.

Qasim looked up from his workstation and grinned.

“How is the new monitoring system coming along?” Ian asked.

Qasim stood up and bowed. “Very good, Mr. Blake, very good. Doctor Corali now receives a prompt notification of any unexpected vital signs from our elders. We’ve tested it thoroughly.” He bowed again.

Ian nodded. “And what about the other team members?”

“Each one is very happily and gratefully placed in a nearby community. We are very grateful, each and every one of us.”

“I’m so sorry about my screwup,” Ian said. He looked at the floor. Sending champagne to Muslims? In a Sharia law country? He shook his head at himself.

“No, Mr. Blake, we are all very happy to leave. We are glad to be here, with you.”

“Perhaps some day you can all have a community of your own. Anyway, keep up the good work.”

Qasim bowed and Ian inclined his head.

Ian walked back past the entrance and found his way to room 23, where he sat down next to a bed and looked out towards the planted fields.

Jack sat up and smiled at him. “Doctor Corali says I can get up and go outside today. Can I?”

The young woman doctor stepped into the room and beamed at Ian.

She looked at the boy and nodded, her clipboard hugged to her chest. “He can go outside but he has to take it easy. I don’t want any stitches pulled or wounds opened, okay Jack?” she said. She looked back at Ian. “He’s healing up nicely. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Jack got up, grabbed some clothes from a small chest next to his bed and headed for the bathroom to change.

I got lucky this time. What a fool I was to put him in harm’s way. I won’t do that again.

Doctor Corali walked over and stood close to Ian. She leaned in and whispered. “I remember seeing your engineering diaries online from when you were making the Marias. It was really impressive.” She giggled.

Jack came out of the bathroom. He gestured toward the door.

“Would you like to go for a little walk with us, Doctor Corali?” Ian asked.

She giggled. “Okay, sure. But call me Lois, please.” She set her clipboard down, took off her white coat and the three of them headed towards the forest. Jack grabbed his dad’s hand. Ian looked at Lois and she offered her hand to him.

Jack looked up at his father. “You were right, Dad. I’m glad you did it. This life is better. I get more time with you.” He looked over at Lois, then at his father. He stepped in between them and placed each of his hands in one of theirs.

“I guess principles are practical after all.” Ian smiled, looked at Lois and shrugged. Kids. The only reason to try and save the world.

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Former starship redshirt turned rag-clad resistance fighter, George Donnelly is the author of space opera, cyberpunk & post-apocalyptic science fiction series. A single unschooling expat dad, George prefers zombies to aliens but is primed for any meatspace apocalypse minus grey goo.

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Downfail: A Dystopian Robot Rebellion Adventure

No jobs. Robots took them. Citizens subsist on a basic income guarantee. They consume their lives in drug-fueled virtual reality gaming binges. Ian Blake doesn't play games and he won't accept handouts. He needs to be productive and useful - but his creepy boss just fired the baby-saving hero and father of three. Ian yearns to build his own robots now. But with a job offer in hand under his old boss in a government agency, he fights his family's callous material greed and his own self-doubt to build the future he thinks we all need.

  • ISBN: 9781941939055
  • Author: George Donnelly
  • Published: 2016-10-25 14:50:21
  • Words: 42374
Downfail: A Dystopian Robot Rebellion Adventure Downfail: A Dystopian Robot Rebellion Adventure