Godkiller in a Bag (Part 1 of 3)

(Part 2) (Part 3)

He awoke because his body grew chilled.  An eyelid fluttered open, and his breath condensed in the winter air.  The Greyhound bus was sitting at a stop, engine off, but there were no other passengers.  There was no driver.

He grunted and pulled his pack closer to him, feeling his heart slow and his nerves calm when he checked inside.  Whatever was after him didn’t know what the bag contained, and it desperately wanted to find out.  He zipped the bag closed, ensuring that anyone or anything watching wouldn’t find out.

He put the tips of his mitten gloves over the chilled ends of his fingers and walked up the aisle of the bus.  He bent down to look out the front window, finding that the bus was parked at a rest stop along the route.  It was possible everyone had just stepped out for a stretch break, but that wasn’t likely.  Not with whatever was after him.

The rest stop was mostly empty this time of night, only a few trucks with napping drivers and minivans with tired moms and dads switching who slept and who drove.  In the distance he spotted looming mountains rising out of nowhere just past Denver.

After refilling a few water bottles, he clenched a fist and approached a trucker climbing into her cab.  “Excuse me,” he hailed, waving his hands.  “Excuse me, but are you headed into Denver?  Maybe further?”

“I don’t take hitchhikers.”

He gulped, let his bag slide down his shoulder just a little, and nodded.  “Well, that’ll probably work out better for you anyway.”

She grumped and shut the driver’s side door but rolled down the window.  “Why’s that?  You an axe murderer?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I just think I’m cursed.”

“Why?”

He looked to either side, then up to the sky.  “Some god, or goddess, has it in for me.  It started when they burned down my house and killed my dog, but then they took all my friends and acquaintances a couple weeks ago.  Shoot, they made everyone on my bus disappear entirely, and I’d only known their faces for all of four hours.”  He pulled tight on the rucksack.  “If I got to know you, I’m sure you’d disappear too.”

She shook her head and cranked up her truck.  “You sound like a nutter.  ‘Sides, why’d you want to get me stolen by this pagan god of yours, assuming it’s real?”

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” he said.  He took off his rucksack and fiddled with the plastic clip.  “The god can’t see inside my backpack, but I think it knows and wants what’s inside.  I think what’s inside can kill it, and that’s why it’s so scared.  If I show you, you become more valuable to the god alive than dead.”

She rolled the window up a couple inches.

“I’m pretty desperate,” the man said.  “I haven’t shown anyone else what’s in my bag, and you’d be the first.”

She wrinkled her nose, but took her hand off the window crank.  “Fine.  If I like what I see, you can hitch a ride.”

He unhitched the bag and stepped on her truck’s runners, giving her just a peek at the contents.

Her eyes widened and he clicked the bag shut before the curious god could sneak its view into the burlap.

“Get in,” she said.  The truck’s doors unlocked at the push of a button.

He jumped off her runner and hurried around the front of her truck, then clambered into the passenger’s seat.

(Part 2) (Part 3)

Future Goggles

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“Step right up, step right up!  Come see the most amazing invention in all the world!  Photographs and moving pictures are nothing in the face of the marvels you’ll see here!”

I craned my neck and snuck through the small crowd to see what the miscreant had to sell, especially considering how great he claimed the invention was, but most everyone else chuckled and smirked at the man’s tactics.  After all, who was going to pay a dollar for five minutes with the machine?  The thing had better cure death if that’s how much the man thought people were going to pay for it.

A lady in many petticoats stepped up to the man’s wagon, holding her parasol in gloved hands as she did.  A tall man in a suit with long coattails accompanied her, smiling and looking down at his dandy little woman.  His teeth were whiter than the average man’s; I gathered he was one of those tooth-brushers, the way those pearly whites gleamed.

“Can you tell us, sir, what exactly your invention is supposed to do?” the aristocratic lady asked, twirling her parasol.  I rubbed my grimy fingers on the breast of my coveralls, feeling small and out of place in the face of her lavish gown.

The salesman smiled, eyeing the fine material of her man’s suit. “Why, little lady, it’s the most incredible invention ever dreamt up!  It uses lenses and electrics and magnets to focus the stream of time and… well, don’t fret your pretty little head about how it works, because I’ve figured it out.  Buy a few minutes with the Future Goggles and see times far beyond imagination, examine the ways people live a hundred years from now!”

The lady lifted a brow and held tight to her man’s arm.  “Why, that sounds absolutely absurd.  Lenses focusing through time… hmph!”

“Ah, but you’re interested, aren’t you?  How about you take me up on a little bet: you try it out, and if you don’t see the future, you get your money back.  Guaranteed.”  The sleazy salesman took a heavy piece of machinery from his wagon, adjusting the leather straps to fit the little lady’s head.

She looked to her tall, fancy man pleadingly until he nodded and removed a silver coin from his pocket, placing it in the salesman’s palm.  With a toothy grin, the salesman took the goggles and placed them carefully over the lady’s hat, tightening the strap so as to keep the large apparatus snug on her head.

The woman’s nose wrinkled and her lips bent into a frown.  “I see nothing, you dolt!”

Chuckling and shaking his head at her, the salesman took the woman’s left hand and placed it on the side of the goggles.  “That’s because the switch hasn’t been thrown.  The steam engine in the wagon will produce the electrics that make the goggles work, but you’ve got to throw this switch when you’re ready.  Feel it, miss?”

The lady nodded.  “Yes.  And you’re sure this is safe?”

“Absolutely.”

The woman threw the switch and the salesman let go.  The heft of the goggles forced her to stumble a bit, causing her face to point upward as she fell backwards.  Eventually she got control and held the device steady with her hands.  I examined the expression on her face as she looked up, above the buildings in town, with awe and wonder.  “What is this?  Look at these lights – there’s got to be millions of them!  And in the sky, what is that?  It’s… is it a flying machine?  This is amazing, so realistic.”

The salesman patted her on the back to the chagrin of the lady’s escort.  “That’s because it is real, miss.”

The tux-wearing fellow stole her waist back, hugging her close.  “Now, don’t get too carried away with this, dear.  You don’t want to get hysteria.”  He swept his hand up to her shoulder, knocking away the salesman.  His fingers fumbled with the strap, trying to remove the goggles from her face.

Suddenly, though, the lady looked back at street level and her expression changed.  “Good heavens, sir!  You disgusting pig!”  Her countenance fell, even though she held tight to the leather strap, refusing to let her dandy fellow remove the goggles and save her from rotting her brain with new thoughts.  “The nerve of you, selling a peep show in public!  Those women are barely clothed, I tell you, hardly fit for the eyes of God-fearing-“

“I’ll pay for a few minutes,” a man in the crowd piped up.

“Give me a chance on ‘em too, sir!”

I swallowed my pride and, seeing that the chance would soon be out of my grasp, called out, “I want to see!”

Instantly, a swarm of men were crowding around the stand, clamoring for the two remaining sets of Future Goggles that the salesman was peddling time with.

The salesman’s face drooped as he guarded his wares, but then his finely waxed moustache curled with the smile on his lips.  “No, this isn’t a peep show!  The women of the future seem to wear trousers, yes, very tight trousers that fit their curves and frame the ways men of our time can hardly fathom, but my goggles are a tool to enlighten and teach, not to satisfy one’s vices.”

“Don’t care,” John, the stable owner, said.  “Here’s a dollar.”  He handed over four silver coins, dropping them into the salesman’s palm, five minutes accounted for.  Goggles went over his head, and the switch was thrown.  John pointed at empty places on the street, whistling.  “Lookit!  It’s just like it were the real thing!”

“Pig!” the lady cried out, pointing her begoggled face at him.

It was simply too much to resist.  I took out the silver dollar I had in my pocket, trying not to think about what my wife and kid might say to me spending a third of my freshly earned wages, and shoved it into the salesman’s hand.  “Let me see,” I said.  “Let me see the future.”

I felt the steel lined with leather bits as the salesman wrapped the goggles around my head, tightened the strap in the buckle, and placed my hand on the switch.  I looked out the lenses of the goggles to see my town, a bit blurry but nonetheless the one that I lived in, before I flipped the switch.

The lenses shone brightly for less than a second before I saw the blurred images depicting what, as I could only imagine, had to be the future.

Around me in every direction were horseless carriages.  Men and women were sitting in them, driving these carriages in both directions on the street.  Sure, the women were wearing trousers, but how could anyone focus on that when there were tall structures made of glass erected to the sky?  When there were flying machines, when there were restaurants on every corner, when horseless carriages ruled the streets?

I looked up at the street and saw a glowing sign with the words “Coca-Cola” on them, an advertisement for one of those tonics people sold.  I whirled around and, seeing no competing tonic sales, wondered if this was the only one that actually cured what ails you.

I walked a couple steps but was jerked back by a hand.  I heard the salesman’s voice, even though I couldn’t see him, say, “The electrics are coming from the wagon!  You can’t go too far, boy, or you’ll pull out the wiring and get shocked.”

Obeying the voice, I reached out blindly until the salesman whipped me back towards the wagon where he wanted me.  I examined the tall buildings, looked at the sky-high posters, and wished I could smell the scent of the food coming out of the sparkling restaurants.

A harrumph from the fancy lady next to me grabbed my attention.  “This is all well and good, but those trousers – I’m going to tell my daughters to dress well, make sure those atrocities never come into fashion!”

“Sorry to interrupt, miss,” I heard the salesman say, “But your time’s up.”

I heard the switch on the lady’s goggles flip, the metal buckles on the leather straps tinkling as they were released.

As soon as her goggles were removed, what my eyes saw began to change.  The restaurants shrank and became dirtier while the women’s pants became less revealing then slowly ballooned into dresses not dissimilar from those on women I saw every day.

“No!  Johnny, pay him some more!  It was so interesting, so-“

“I don’t think so,” the rich Johnny replied.  “Thank you, sir, for your invention, but I believe I shall remove her from the premises before she sees too much.”

The salesman chuckled while I heard another person’s money clink into his hand.  “No trouble.  Thank you for your business.”

I turned around, seeing a horseless carriage coming at me faster than any of the others.  It zoomed, several of the other carriages lunging to the left and right to get out of the way.  My body flinched and my throat yelped as the carriage reached me, steel pieces flying up from the front of it, smoke fuming out from under the bent coverings.

“Mother of God!” John called out, “You took the half-nekkid future women away!  I’m not going to sit here and look at these dangerous carriages and the idiots that use them if there’s no nekkid ladies!”

The salesman stomped over to where John had spoken.  “What?  I’ve never had that problem before.  Keep watching, just keep watching and see if they come back.”

The man to my right who had taken the goggles from the rich lady harrumphed.  “You cheating scoundrel!  Was that first lady who bought this a plant?”  His voice, with a deep and raspy quality of a long-time tobacco smoker, was immediately recognizable as the town’s general store owner.  “I paid for half-naked future women, not for the kind of trollops I can already see by lookin’ out my front door.  And that’s another thing, too – where’d the future get off destroying my shop!?  They can’t put another building there!”

I couldn’t see their faces or become invested in John’s or the shopkeeper’s argument.  Bits and pieces of the complex machinery that made up a couple horseless carriages were hanging out all over the road.  I cringed as I saw a bit of blood on broken glass.

“Lord have mercy!” John shouted.  “Look at what happens when you get rid of the horse and buggy – danger, destruction, outrage!”

I wiped a bit of sweat from my face.  There had to be a payoff, a reason that people of the future chose to use the horseless carriages.  They seemed fantastical machines, perhaps just a small piece of what made the future better.

John flipped his switch and unbuckled his goggles.  “When I get home, I’m tellin’ my kids never to get one of them whimmyjigs.  No sirree, horse and buggy for me and mine, safe and sound.”

Another person paid with a few clinking coins and took the goggles.  It wasn’t a moment, though, before I noticed the carriages change.  The advertisements on the enormous posters wiped themselves free of anything pertaining to the horseless carriage, the flying machines in the sky changed shape and disappeared, and finally horses and buggies replaced all the machines.

The switch on my goggles flipped, the visage of my town through blurry lenses returning.  The salesman reached his chubby hands around my head to my goggles’ buckle.  I scrambled, pulling some money from my pocket.  “I’ll pay you for more time.”  I handed him a dollar, cringing as I thought about how my wife would kick me out.

“Someone else is waiting in line,” the salesman said.

I pulled out the last coin to my name and shoved it into his hands.  “Here – two dollars for five minutes.”

A wiry little man who was in line frowned at me.  “Hey, I paid for a ride!  You gonna let this colored take my spot?”

I flinched, but the salesman chuckled and put the goggles back on my head.  He looked to the wiry man, explaining, “You’ll get your turn, mister, but profit calls and this negro offered more than you.  You want to pay three dollars to kick him off?”

The wiry man shook his head, so I flipped the switch and returned to the future.

The new presence of the horses and heavily clothed women couldn’t overshadow the massive buildings, couldn’t get rid of the progress that man had made.  The future was still very interesting, I would say better, than now.

It was only a couple more minutes before people began clamoring for the storekeeper’s set of goggles.  As he stepped away, I heard him claim, “Nothing I know and love is here – where is my shop?  What happened to it?  I’m not going to let my business die!  I’ll never sell my land!”

Remembering what had happened to the ladies’ fashions and horseless carriages, I held my breath.  I hoped that the pattern of wishes coming true and declarations holding fast didn’t continue.  I enjoyed the buildings that touched the sky, their shiny glass and sweeping steel.

The man’s switch flipped and I clenched my fists in dear hope that nothing would change, but I saw the buildings shrink down to dilapidated versions of the wooden structures present in my own time.  My heart pounded in my chest as I looked at the future, the grandeur and mystery of the place nearly gone.

I heard movement and a voice from the man who had taken the goggles from John.  Through the gap between the bottom of the goggles and my own cheeks, I could see his white beard waggling as he asked, “What are these lights?  Are you… are you telling me that my legacy to my children will be forgotten?”  I recognized his voice as that of the town’s oil lantern maker, one of the most backwards and nostalgic old men I’d ever known.  I heard the buckle on his goggles unclip as he thrust the machine towards the salesman.  “There’s nothing good about the future – this whole thing was a waste!  I’m leaving!”

As the bright lights of the future dimmed to mere flames, I felt the corners of my lips fall, my heart drop.  So many things were gone, never to be regained.  How could so many good things be destroyed?  How could the future be so easily broken?

Two sets of goggles were empty, and the crowd grumbled in discontent.  “Too good to be true,” I heard a woman mumble.  Skirts and trousers ruffled as the crowd dissipated.  A man agreed with the woman, “Those first customers were probably plants.  Let’s not waste our money.”

As I looked at the future, I realized that what I now saw was a waste.  I recalled the future I had seen earlier and longed for it, wished with all my might that it could happen.  Though probably nothing would be able to undo all that damage, I resolved to do what I could to bring it back.

The salesman carefully put down the heavy goggles on the back of the wagon.  Though my clock was still ticking, possibly out of time as it was, he didn’t move to take my pair of goggles back.  I heard a heavy sigh and a grumble just before he punched the side of his wagon, a horse snorting in derision.

Clicking my tongue and shaking my head, I undid the buckles on the back of the goggles and lowered the mechanism carefully onto the wagon with the two others.  The salesman reached across me, grabbing the goggles perched upon the wagon, and tossed them, the glass lenses breaking loudly.  I jumped as they shattered, a small yelp escaping my lips.

For a moment, he tilted his head to look at me, then scowled and returned his attention to the wooden side of his cart.  “What do you want?” he muttered curtly.

I stammered as I answered, “I think I want my money back.”

“What?”  The salesman turned his head to glare at me, his lips frowning and his eyes squinted tight.  “You saw the future!  You even paid me for a second ride – don’t try to lie to me, boy.”

I shrugged.  He was right, in a way.  “I hate to say it, sir.  Am I really looking at the future when everything’s the same as it is right now?”

He huffed, wiping his nose and trying to seem like he wasn’t upset.  “You ain’t getting a red cent out of me.  I know it works, saw the future myself.  Every time someone got on, though, they didn’t like what they saw.”  With shaking, angry, fingers, he picked up the goggles, clutching them dangerously tight.  “Isn’t it just the damnedest thing how fragile time is?  How a small person, with only his tiny influence, can run the whole thing off the rails?”

I nodded.  “Yessir, that’s mighty interesting.  Maybe that’s why God didn’t make us such that we could see the future.  We’re too liable to break it.”  I began to walk away, thinking about reassuring the salesman, but resolved not to.  If others could break the future, maybe I could save it.  No one would ever know what I’d done, but all the men and women of the future would be truly free from the past’s shackles.

I sauntered away, hands in my pockets and a tune whistling from my lips, as I heard the sounds of breaking glass, of horses rearing as wires were yanked out of the electrics machine.  The salesman cursed and tossed the goggles, destroying his fantastical invention.  With each subsequent clang and rattle of destruction, I walked faster.  The salesman’s machine, just like the future and anything else man creates, could be broken.

Inhabitation Machine (Part 3 of 3)

low angle photography of metal building on grayscale

(Part 1) (Part 2)

Afan shifted some dials and rebooted the chrono-engines.  “This is probably your last chance.  Your brain won’t take another inhabitation.  If you fail to get the artifact this time, we’ll have to switch jobs.”

“I’ve got it.”  Jarusc floated easily in the brine pool.  “Hook me up.”

The swirl of Jarusc’s time slipping away hurt.  Afan had been right – the ability to time travel degraded with every trip, and Jarusc was fading.  Soon enough, Jarusc’s eyes opened and he was in the body Afan had promised.

He was lithe, lean, and muscular, and his skin glistened with sweat.  His heart beat hard and fast in his chest, and the manure-scented summer air hung heavy in his lungs.

A white man stood next to him smoking a pipe.  From his previous trips, Jarusc recognized Mr. Johnson.  The white man pointed his pipe at a bloody piece of meat hanging from the rafters.  “Get ‘er.  Righ ’bout there – I think I see a bit of ‘er nekkedness.”

Jarusc gulped.  How could he… no, he couldn’t possibly do it.  Still, if he didn’t obey Mr. Johnson, he knew what kind of punishment awaited him.  So he whipped the poor slave girl.

“Get me out!” The woman cried.  Jarusc flinched, remembering when he had shouted the words from her frame.  “Get me out of this body!”

The white man chuckled.  “I think she’s had enough.  You reckon so, boy?”

Jarusc, his eyes wide and filling with tears, shook.  “Yessir.”

The white man opened a door from the barn, allowing the sweet smell of fresh air to penetrate the dank, shit-filled barn.  Jarusc fell to his knees, unable to believe that he had hit this poor girl – this poor body he had inhabited two trips before – and cried.  “I’m sorry!” he shouted.

Another slave, this one barely a child, peeked in through the door.  “Momma?” it asked.

Jarusc shook his head.  No, this child couldn’t see his mother in this state!

But the woman coughed up blood and, in between cries of pain, nodded her head to ask the kid in.  The child, young enough that puberty hadn’t changed his or her body’s shape, walked in.  It reached up to touch its mother, then thought better of it when it noticed the blood streaming down.  “I buried the visitor’s box, Momma, just like you said.”

The woman coughed.  “Good.  Go tell miss Cameo – she’ll keep it safe, she’ll get you a reward and keep you safe.”  Blood came up from her lungs.  “I love you.”

“I love you too, Momma!”

“Now run along.  I’m not going to last much longer.”

The kid hurried off, but Jarusc grabbed its arm.  As he looked at the child, he noticed a small penis and shriveled balls on the naked form.  “What did you bury?” Jarusc asked, holding the kid tight.  “Did a human give it to you, or was it something else?  Where is it?”

The woman on the rafters coughed.  “Don’t tell him!” she cried out with the last of her will.  “He’s a snitch – he’ll just tell Mr. Johnson, then we’ll all be doomed.”

The kid pulled against Jarusc’s hands and tried to escape.  “Lemme go!”

“Not until you tell me what I want to know!”

The kid, smarter than he looked, kicked Jarusc in the genitals and ran while he couldn’t hold tight.  He ran out the door and away, down a path Jarusc couldn’t see.

Once he stumbled to his feet, Jarusc picked up his whip.  The bloody woman on the rafters was dead, dead thanks to his own doing, and Cameo was locked in her lofty, rich prison.  George, the body Jarusc inhabited, could do nothing – if he asked Cameo where the artifact would be, Mr. Johnson could probably have him whipped or killed for talking to his wife.  The kid wasn’t going to squeal, either, and it seemed those two were the only ones who knew the location.

“Afan,” George muttered, “Afan – I failed.  Get me out.”

Jarusc woke in the pool and pulled off the dark mask.

Afan came by and helped remove the electrodes.  “Any hints for when I take a ride?”

Jarusc wiped teary eyes.  “Yeah.  Just don’t give up.”

(Part 1) (Part 2)

Inhabitation Machine (Part 2 of 3)

low angle photography of metal building on grayscale

(Part 1) (Part 3)

Afan shifted some dials.  “I only see a few other options.  The computer says your last body was the best bet to find the artifact.”

Jarusc shivered.  “No.  That woman was dying.  I wasn’t going to get anywhere.”  With a splash, Jarusc settled back in the warm, salt pool and adjusted the scalp electrodes.  “Find a better option.  The computer doesn’t know everything.”

The world shifted and churned around Jarusc.  This time, the body Afan had chosen was a white woman.  She sat in a bedroom with a book on her lap, legs confined within many petticoats and torso crushed by a corset.  After a few minutes acclimatizing to breathing within the iron girdle, Jarusc put the book to a side table and struggled to stand in uncomfortable shoes.

Still, far better than being naked and nearly flayed.

When she found her feet, Jarusc picked up some of the heavy skirts and made her way to the door.  She put her hand on the latch and pressed down, only to find that the door had been bolted.  She felt around the latch and looked for a way to turn the bolt, but saw none.  It was likely locked from the other side.

She hoisted her skirts higher and walked over to the window.  She reached up to the lacy curtains and pulled them back.  The library room sat on the second floor of a grand plantation house, and the glass windows were glued shut.  She shook the panes in attempt to free them from their sills, but they remained closed.

Jarusc looked around the room.  The chair was bolted to the floor, and no tools sat near the empty fireplace.  Everything was either soft, bolted, or otherwise useless to break the window.

She opened a dresser and removed a petticoat, wrapping her hand in the many layers of expensive cotton.  She made a fist and wound up to break free, but there came a knock at the door.

“Miss Cameo?” a woman’s voice, tinged with the accent of a black southerner, called through the door.  “Miss Cameo, you okay in there?”

Jarusc hid the petticoat behind her.  “Yes. Everything’s fine.”

“You been tryin’ to get out.  I heard the door, I heard you shakin’ the window.   You got a book in there, ain’t you?”

Jarusc nodded.  “Oh, yes.  Yes, I’ve got a book.  Everything’s-”

“You know what massa Johnson says ’bout them books!”  The slave fumbled with the door’s latch.  “Now you git that thing out here ‘fore I get in trouble.  Pass it ‘neath the door ‘fore he has me whipped like Betty.”

Jarusc’s eyes widened.  “What else am I supposed to do in here?”

“Get bettah, that’s what.”  The slave woman put her hand to the door once more, jiggling the handle just as ineffectively as Jarusc had.  “Don’ make me go get Mr. Johnson, Miss Cameo.  You don’ want him comin’ back here to take the book.”

Now that Jarusc was certain the slave woman couldn’t get in, she returned to the window and smashed one of the panes.

“Oh no!” the slave shouted.  “You sit tight, Miss Cameo – I’ll be back with help!”

Jarusc used the torn petticoat to grab one of the wooden separators in the window and attempted to tear out the blockade.  It didn’t budge, the new wood strong relative to her weak arms.  She punched through an adjacent pane, hoping to weaken the window’s integrity.

Before long, the lock on the door clicked open and the white man – the one who had Jarusc whipped on the last journey – entered the room.  He grabbed Jarusc tight to his body, and she could do nothing in the tight dress.

“Oh thank goodness you’re safe,” he intoned, Southern drawl dripping from his voice.  “I should have known the windows would tempt you to Satan.”

Jarusc lifted a brow.  “What?”

“Shh.  Just be quiet – words hurt your mind, beloved Cameo.”  He turned to the slave and waggled a finger at her.  “How did she get a book?”

“I dunno, Massa Johnson.”

“You don’t know?”  He dropped Cameo and pointed at the slave.  “You don’t know?  You put her in here – who else would know?”  He grabbed Cameo up by the wrist.  “Help me put her up, and I might not have George give you a spanking.  You hear me?”

The slave nodded.  “Yessah.”

Jarusc tried to get out of Mr. Johnson’s grip, but his fingers held tight to her wrists.  “Afan!” Jarusc shouted.  “Afan, get me out of here!”

In just a moment, Jarusc exited Miss Cameo’s prison and awoke in the salt pool.  “Afan!” Jarusc called.  “Afan, that was terrible!  Can’t you choose someone better?  Can’t I be Mr. Johnson?”

Afan huffed.  “You can’t inhabit the body of someone who can change the timeline significantly.  Otherwise you run the risk of causing a paradox, of this not happening at all.”

“How am I going to do anything if I’m confined?  If I’m beaten nearly to death?  I’m supposed to be finding an artifact, not suffering as nobodies.”

Afan sighed.  “I can put you in George.  He’s the favorite slave.”

“The one who whipped me earlier?”

“Same one.”

Jarusc nodded and replaced the dark mask.  “Give it a try.”

(Part 1) (Part 3)

Inhabitation Machine (Part 1 of 3)

low angle photography of metal building on grayscale

(Part 2) (Part 3)

The year was 2371, the day somewhat warm and the rain outside only slightly acidic.  Jarusc stepped willingly into the bath.  The lukewarm cauldron of high molarity salts circulated at 37 C and conducted just the slightest tingle of electrical current.

Afan adjusted a few nuts on the plumbing and began warming up the chrono-engines.  “I’ve locked on.”

“1860?”

“Yes.  I’ve found a body the timelines will let you inhabit.  You shouldn’t be able to cause a paradox even if you tried.”

“I’m ready.”  Jarusc pulled down the dark mask and squeezed the electrical pads closer to a shaved head.

Afan hit the button.

Jarusc felt dizzy for a moment, but soon everything was just overcome with utter pain.  A look down and Jarusc realized what the pain was.  The body Afan had placed him in hung from rafters, wrists chained to the ceiling and toes barely sweeping on the ground.  The body’s flesh was torn to bits, destroyed to a point where Jarusc couldn’t tell if it were male or female.

All Jarusc could tell was that the body had dark skin.

A black man with a whip stood nearby, and a white man smoking a pipe just beside him.  The white man pointed at Jarusc with the bowl of his pipe.  “Get ‘er.  Righ ’bout there – I think I see a bit of ‘er nekkedness.”

The pain of the whip didn’t register beside the rest of the hurts all over her body.  “Get me out!” Jarusc cried.  “Get me out of this body!”

The white man chuckled.  “I think she’s had enough.  You reckon so, boy?”

The black man, his eyes wide and filling with tears, shook.  “Yessir.”

The white man opened a door from the barn, allowing the sweet smell of fresh air to penetrate the dank, shit-filled barn.  Jarusc could only whimper in the darkness until Afan noticed what was happening and pulled off the connecting lines.

Pulled by Afan from the pool, Jarusc touched the places where the slave had been whipped.  The skin had returned, the wounds no longer present.  Only the memory of pain still stung.

Afan set Jarusc’s back against the tub.  “Did you get the info?  Did you find out where the artifact was buried?”

Jarusc’s head shook.  “No.  I was just a slave girl being beaten in a barn.  Give me someone else to inhabit, someone who isn’t dying.  Someone with more freedom.”

“You sure you don’t need a break?”

“I’m sure.  Do it again.”

With a nod, Afan replaced the neurotransmitter and re-booted the chrono-engines.

(Part 2) (Part 3)

The Devil’s Phone Number (Part 3 out of 3)

phones

(First Installment) (Second Installment)

The man on the phone wanted me to walk away while Angel Dust Dan took another hit – or two or three – of cocaine.  I didn’t know how much was too much, but the man on the phone had been clear I was to leave with Dan’s phone.

I crossed the railroad tracks and turned to the north as the phone man had asked.  My eyes flit to either side of San Pablo, looking through the hordes of homeless people and ordinary pedestrians.  The man on the phone had said to look for a blind person.  Would I know when I found them?  I had the feeling the man on the phone wouldn’t let me miss the target.

I shook my head.  Even if Angel Dust Dan weren’t dead, he may as well be.  The economy was garbage, the war would never end, and he’d just flushed his wallet by snorting coke that… did I do that to him?  Was it my fault?

I shook my head.  Dan’s fate had already been sealed. The man on the phone had made me a thousand dollars from nothing, so how bad could he be?

I went several blocks before I saw a guy with an injury on his forehead.  He sat just outside a building, shaking a can aimlessly.  He held a cane in his hand, white with a red section on the bottom.  I hung back for a moment, watching to make sure this guy was blind, both hoping for and dreading the phone call.

Dan’s phone vibrated in my pocket, so I jumped in the brief moments before it rang.  I shuffled in my pockets and put it to my ear.  “What… what do I do?”

“Go up to the blind person.  Offer him a job.”

I raised a brow.  “I don’t even have a job.  How about you get me some income instead?”

“You’re doing your job right now.   Go up to the beggar and offer a job.   Get on the bus down to the lighthouse and find the man working at the mill.  Take his deal.”   The man on the phone hung up, and I clicked the new touchscreen off.

The blind man shook his cup.  I puffed my chest; if the beggar were blind, whatever the man on the phone was planning couldn’t be worse than his current situation, even if it killed him.  Steeling myself, I walked up to him and grunted.

The man didn’t look up to me, not really, but his head turned at my approach.  “Donations?” the blind man asked.

I bit my lip before I said, “I’ve got a lead on a job you could do.  Want it?”

He raised a brow and pulled his cup tightly to his chest.  “Nobody’s got jobs now.  What’s the catch?”

I shrugged.  “It’s down at the lighthouse.”  I reached down and took his hand.  “Come on.  It’ll be perfect for you, and you won’t have to beg anymore.”

My tug met some resistance, but after a moment, he gave in.  “I don’t have a bus ticket.  I can’t get there with you.”

“I’ll buy it.”  I managed to get the blind man to stand without much more effort, and he whipped the cane out in front of us to raster.

He took my elbow.  “Now, what kind of work do you have?  What kind of pay does it give?”  His cane hit a bike rack, so he sidestepped a little.  “I don’t want one of those jobs where they pay you 10 cents an hour.”

I chuckled.  “Ten cents an hour is illegal.”

“Ever hear of the subminimum wage?”

I chuckled.  Subminimum wage?  Was this guy off his rocker?  “I wouldn’t worry about that.”  I urged him forward, finding that the bus had pulled up to the stop just in time.  “My guy’s got a job you can do.  Sure, I could find a guy who’s not blind and all, but why do that?  The economy will pick up eventually, and that guy will be fine.  You?  You’re the better pick.”

The bus ride took a while since we had to cross the bay, but it passed uneventfully.  Plenty of people couldn’t afford this nowadays.  We went past Alcatraz, watched where they were surveying to build a new bridge, and continued on to the lighthouse.

We got out of the bus, me leading the blind man with my elbow.  “You doing ok?” I asked.

“I hope this is as good as you say.”  He knocked his cane about.

A woman with a clipboard and a briefcase came out from behind a building.  She looked to her phone – a nice, new touchscreen – and came forward as if she knew who I was and what I was doing.  She put away her phone and stood primly with an extended hand.  “Ms. Thorpe.”

I shook the hand.  “James Shanahan.”  Not my name, but my insurance agent’s.

“I’m a recruiter for a shelter for the blind.  We pay a wage to give our workers petty cash for their own needs and provide additional, in-kind payment in the form of home-cooked meals and housing.”  She opened the briefcase.  “For you, I offer a finders fee, part of the take from my own recruiting gigs.  Companies don’t get better deals than what I offer.”

The blind man hit her calf with the end of his cane.  “Petty cash?  How much are we talking?”

I gulped and nodded.  “Yeah… how much are we talking?  I don’t want to just drop him off at something that won’t help him out.”

“That’s inconsequential.  We can guarantee food, shelter, and safety.  Can your beggar’s cup do that?”  She yanked the can of change from the man’s hands and shook it.  “No.” With a gruff shove, she looked to me instead.  “You’re the guardian, right?  Just sign these papers, take your cash, and we’ll finish the rest.”

The blind man yanked on my arm.  “It’s one of those deals like the backpack place – it’s slavery!  I’ll get 10 cents an hour if I’m lucky, and I’m not going to do that.  You lied to me, mister!  Get me back across the bay!”

Ms. Thorpe removed a pen from her clipboard and offered the paper to me.  She pointed to a dotted line, and I took the ballpoint with my right hand.  A false signature on the line, and she handed me the briefcase full of cash.  “Thank you, Mr. Shanahan.”

I looked down at the briefcase.  Was… no, this was right.  He was going to be fed and housed.  Better than what he’d have otherwise.

She reached to the man, took his cane, and broke it across her knee.  “You don’t need that where we’re going.”  After peeling his grasp off my arm, she led him away to a car, stuffed him in the backseat, and they were gone.

The phone rang.  Reluctantly, I placed my hand in the lapel and pulled it out.  It was the guy – I knew it had to be.  I answered with a push of a button and put the speaker up to my ear.  “What do you want?”

“Write down everything that’s happened and what I’m about to tell you.  Take that money.  Buy a ticket to Vegas.  Put a bet on-”

“No,” I ordered.  “Who are you?  I just… I think I just sold a guy into slavery!  What the hell are you?  Are you… are you me from the future?  Is that why I’m writing this crap down?”

A pause.  “You’re going to buy a ticket to Vegas.  Go to Caesar’s Palace, find a poker table.  You’ll find-”

“Are you the devil?”

A chuckle.  “You’ll find a poker table with a lady dealer.  She’ll have big boobs, the kind you like, and brilliant blue eyes.  Play $100 on five hands, then -”

“No,” I said, listening to the voice.  “No… you’re… you’re making me destroy people’s lives.”

“You’ve already ruined plenty.  The economy’s in the toilet, and it was the fault of people like you.  What’s a few more lives down the to?  Besides, I think I’ve proven my usefulness.  Now… play $100 on five hands, then $1,000 on the sixth.”  He laughed.  “You’ll do what I say.  You are the devil.”

And he hung up.

I pointed myself to the subway and made my way to the airport.

(First Installment) (Second Installment)

The Devil’s Phone Number (Part 2 out of 3)

phones

(Click Here for the Previous Installment)(Click Here for the Next Installment)

I held the phone tight.  “Yes?”

“Don’t waste that coin,” the man on the phone said.  “There’s a napkin on top of the machine.  Take it and ask the guy who gave you the phone for a pen.”

The napkin on top of the machine was smooth, only the edges crimped and unusable for notes.  I looked to the man next to me, his blue suitcoat looking rather frayed.  “Uh… you have a pen?”

He nodded and revealed a ballpoint from a pocket.  I took it and pushed the trigger on the top.

“Shoot,” I said to the man on the phone.

“Write down everything you’ve done up to now exactly.  Ask the man with the phone for his number.”

I put the phone on my shoulder and bit my tongue while I scribbled quickly.  “What’s this number?” I asked the guy.

“What do I get out of it?”

The man on the phone didn’t miss a beat.  “Take him with you to the race track.  Give him half the take.”

I looked up at the guy.  “I’ll give you half what we’re going to make at the racetrack.  Guy on the phone has hot tips.”

He looked at the chips in my hands anodded, taking the pen.  He wrote the number on the napkin.

The man on the phone grunted.  “Now catch the 8.  Buy both you and the other guy a ticket.  Put everything on Chocolate Candy.”  With a cough, the phone cut off.

I handed the phone back to the guy in the blue suitcoat.  “Let’s go down to the tracks.”

***

I held my racehorse bet receipt in my hand tightly.  When Chocolate Candy was first past the post, I stood to cheer.  It wasn’t an outside bet, didn’t have the worst of odds, but I was going to get a good haul.

The man with the phone jumped up and down exuberantly.  “Oh, shit, who was that on my phone?  I love that guy!”

I hauled the man with the phone over to the booth, collected our winnings, and started divvying up the take.

No sooner had that happened but the phone rang again.  The man answered and gave it to me after just a moment.  “It’s for you again.”

I put the phone up to my ear.  “Do you have more instructions?”

“Walk out to the Bulb,” the voice said.  “Go up to the top of the hill.  There will be a man dealing heroine.  Approach him but say nothing, no matter what he says.  I’ll call back.”

I looked strangely at the phone, the voice gone once more, and gave it back to the unwitting follower.  “Come with me,” I said.

We walked up the hill.  It was a dry afternoon, and the path was well worn by all the stolen shopping carts people have wheeled up this place.  I steered clear of dirty needles and weird homeless people with dirty hair.  Even with my pocket full of cash, it wasn’t enough to keep me from ending up here in a couple weeks.  Eventually, I saw a person ahead of us on the path, at the top of the hill.

The man with the phone rubs his hands together.  “You sure this is what he said to do?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I gulped, wondering what was going on.  “The guy on the phone said not to talk with the drug dealer.  He hasn’t led me astray yet, has he?”

The drug dealer raised his hands, and a smile crept onto his dirty face.  He walked right up to my new friend with the phone.  “Hey, it’s old Angel Dust Dan!”

I snickered, but Angel Dust Dan didn’t find it so funny.  “I don’t know this guy,” he claimed, though his wandering eyes insisted otherwise.

The drug dealer removed a bag from his inner coat pocket.  “Sure you do.  You know the Snowman.  You know what you want.”

The man with the phone looked longingly at the bag.  “I’ll say one thing about the crisis – I’ve been clean 8 months.  It’s not a good idea to start back up.”

The man jiggled the bag.  “And all you have to show for getting clean is a load of failure and you still don’t got no job.  Just take a pinch – you like it, man.”

“No.”

The Snowman opened a pocket, but Angel Dust Dan lashed out and took it.  The Snowman accepted a fistful of Angel Dust Dan’s cash, allowing my recent companion to take a snort.  A big one.

The phone rang.  Angel Dust Dan stumbled rather than answering, and the phone kept ringing.

I reached into Dan’s coat and took the phone out.  “Hello – I’m here.  What do I do next?”

“Walk away.  Don’t return the phone.  Write everything you’ve done on the napkin.”

I waited, not noticing anything like the click of the phone hanging up.  “Who are you?” I asked.  “You knew what was going to happen.  You knew you were just going to prey on this guy’s addiction-”

“Says the subprime loan lender.”  The man on the phone coughed and wheezed.  “I know everything about you.  You’re going to walk away with the phone.  Go north on San Pablo until you see a blind beggar.  I’ll call you back.”

(Previous Installment) (Next Installment)

The Devil’s Phone Number (Part 1 out of 3)

phones

(Click Here for Part 2)(Click Here for Part 3)

Ketchup.  If the internet was to be believed, ketchup was a smoothie – and if my stomach was to believed, calories of any sort were necessary.

The lights in my house had been cut off a few weeks ago.  My hands shook from lack of nicotine, and I was just waiting for the sheriff and Wells Fargo to come kick me out of this house.  It had just been a couple adjustable rate mortgages, nothing illegal even if they had been predatory.

But that was before the crash.  Now, I couldn’t pay my own mortgage, my credit was maxed out, and I had one ketchup smoothie between me and starvation.

The old landline on my carpeted floor rang.  I raised a brow – even if I had either phone or electrical service still working, it wasn’t plugged into the wall.

Carefully, I picked the phone up.  “Hello?”

“Don’t hang up.”  A couple haggard breaths.  “You’re going to make it through this.”

I snickered and choked on a sip of ketchup.  “Who the hell is this?”

“Go to the bus stop.  You’ll find a dollar in change on the ground if you’re not finicky about gum.  Walk it down the casino at the reservation, and put it in the slot machine closest to the bar at exactly 1:13 pm.  Stop all barrels when your watch reads 34 seconds exactly.”

I dropped the ketchup bottle, nearly empty, and laughed.  “If I leave, I lose the house.  They’ll change the locks and I’ll not be let back in.”

“The house is already gone.  There’s no point trying to hold onto it when there’s more ahead.”  The voice sighed, then coughed again, sick.  “You’ve had your instructions.  Don’t let me or yourself down.”

The phone clicked and the line went dead before even the dial tone just cut off.  I waited a few dumbstruck seconds, but then dropped the receiver.  I realized I wasn’t breathing, so I released the air I held in my lungs and drew in a new one.

I picked myself up and, still wearing Tuesday’s grimy underwear, still smelling of a powerful, fiery sweat, took myself outside.  I had to shield my eyes from the piercing sun after days of hiding in my house, but it didn’t take me long to cross the street and head down a couple blocks to the bus station. Sure enough, I found around a dollar in change, so I peeled off a couple pieces of bubblegum and stuffed the coins in my pocket.

The nearest casino was a couple miles to the west, right up against the bay.  If I started walking now, I could make it by the 1:13 time frame the man on the phone had prescribed.  It was only a dollar – even if the call was insane, I had lost a lot more already.

The walk was calm, the weather perfect as always.  A couple dogs barked at me through fences, and homeless – people who probably had more money than me, given my debts – ignored me for the first time in my life.  That nearly unsettled me as much as the usual begging.

At last I made it to the casino.  I got a few glances from the employees, a couple sniffs in my general direction, but they let me in anyway.  The financial crisis had destroyed or killed enough of their clientele, and it had been long enough since people had been so willing to throw money away gambling.  My dollar was as good as anyone else’s.

I looked to the large clock above the exchange and handed over my change, receiving a chip from the clerk.  Time was growing short, but I still had plenty to get over to the prescribed machine.  Someone sat at the machine just next to the one I was supposed to use, giving me a look as if I was taking an adjacent urinal when I took my seat.

As my watch ticked over to 1:13, I inserted the coin and pulled the lever to make the barrels spin.  I looked to my watch and, when it read 34 seconds, slapped all three buttons at once.

$50 in chips spewed from the outlet.  My eyes widened, and I carefully scooped the coins into my hand.

I picked one up and looked to put it back into the machine and try again, but the man on the machine next to me tapped my shoulder.

“What?”

His eyes were wide, his face pale.  He held a Blackberry to me and gulped.  “He… he says it’s for you.”

(Click Here for Part 2)(Click Here for Part 3)

Return of the Iron Lung

Robot TouchThe doctor looked down the bridge of his nose over his glasses.   “You realize this isn’t a treatment.  This will kill Aven.”  He spoke loud enough to be audible over the whir of the room filled with iron lungs.

Rebecca clung to Will’s arms.  Her fingers clutched his plaid shirt, her auburn hair caught his quiet tear while streams of crying rolled down her own cheeks.

Will gulped and held her tight.  “Aven’s dying, doc.  We’re going to lose him either way, so why not give him an immortal body?”

The doctor closed the door behind him, preventing the sounds of the conversation from entering the sick child’s room.  The nerdy little doctor puffed his chest as much a man of his stature could.  “He could still pull through.”

“But paralyzed from the neck down, just to die if the power fails!” Rebecca sobbed.   “Give him the mechanical body.  Put him in the robot chassis.”

The doctor gritted his teeth.  “If you fill out the paperwork, I can’t stop the roboticist from helping you.”  He shoved a cart out of his way.  “May God have mercy on your souls.”

***

Even though the procedure went on in an enclosed clean room, Will could still smell singed flesh while the brain scraper burned away Aven’s thoughts, layer by layer.  After the scanner swept over a cell, burning it, the computer interpreted his memories and personality.  Once a layer turned to ash, a metal spatula scraped the dead cells away and the process began for the next layer down.

Will squeezed Rebecca tight while she hid her face from their child’s precariously open brain cavity.

The roboticist snapped her fingers and waved the eraser of a pencil at the screen.  “Nice lookin’ brain yer kid’s got there.”  She smacked some gum and took a few illegible notes on a pad of paper.

Will nodded to a steel chassis in the room.  “Is that where he’s going?  Into that body?”

Will disliked how the roboticist failed to look him in the eye, instead averting meeting a direct gaze at all costs.  She followed Will’s glare at the body in the corner, took a vicious chomp at her gum, and answered, “Oh, yeah, yeah.  That’ll be him, alright.”  She bent to her desk and clicked a few buttons.  “He’s near bout burned out of his skull.  Gonna boot him back up in 3… 2… 1…”

Will nudged Rebecca, urging her to look.  She shielded her eyes from the empty brain cavity, instead looking to the little robot in the back.  It wiggled a finger, an arm, and looked to them in the glass.

Rebecca gasped and put her hand against the window.  “Aven!  Oh, Aven, baby – you’re going to be ok!”

The roboticist looked to Will while his wife waved at the robot inside.  “You care what we do with the corpse?”

Will bit his lip.  “I’ve made arrangements.  Send it to the morgue, if you would.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Waste of time, but ok.”

***

Will watched as Aven colored. Each stroke of the crayon was strained, and eventually the robot tossed the yellow piece of wax down.  “I don’t wanna practice motor skills.”

Will picked up the crayon and placed it in the steel fingers, pressing them closed.  “You’ll get used to the new body.  Soon you’ll go to kindergarten, and you’ll get to play with the other kiddos.”

The cameras that served as Aven’s eyes twitched.  “Will there be other kids in the iron lung?  Like me?”

“Iron lung?”

“Yeah.” He pounded his chest, the steel thudding beneath his fist.  “I heard the doctors talk about it when I was sick.”

Will gulped.  “Maybe.  We’ll find out soon, right?”

***

Aven’s teacher, Mr. Tilden, folded his hands over the tablet on the desk.  “Thank you for coming to speak with me about Aven.  I’m glad you’re so involved with him, especially with all he’s been through.”

Will nodded.  “It’s certainly been a rough journey.”

He pointed at Rebecca’s belly.  “And I see you’ve got another lucky little one on the way?”

She nodded.  “A little girl.”

“Going to vaccinate this time?” Mr. Tilden asked.

Will held Rebecca’s shoulders.  “That’s something we’re currently discussing.”  He coughed and scooted his chair closer to the table. “Now, what’s wrong with Aven?”

Mr. Tilden smiled, the corners of his lips raised forcedly. “He wants to go by a different name at school.  I was wondering if he’d expressed this desire at home.”

Will and Rebecca consulted with silent shakes of the head.  “No, sir. He’s been fine at home.  Have the kids in class been teasing him?”

Mr. Tilden paused a bief moment, then picked up the tablet that sat beneath his hands.  “As you know, all classrooms are heavily monitored for safety purposes, so I have video of our chat.  I think it’s best if you see this for yourself.”

He clicked the play button at the bottom of the screen.  A little robot sat in a child-sized chair across from Mr. Tilden while children played in the background.  Its mechanical face stayed focused on the table while Mr. Tilden asked, “What’s wrong, Aven?”

The robot’s fingers fiddled. “I… I want a new name.  Something that’s not Aven.”

The Mr. Tilden in the video seemed taken aback only briefly. “Does it not fit your expressed gender?”

“No, I’m fine being a boy.  I just don’t think I’m Aven.”

“Why not?”

“Well… Mommy and Daddy love Aven, but they don’t love me.  They love the Aven they buried.  I don’t think I want to keep pretending.”

Mr. Tilden stopped the video.  “So you see, something is going wrong at home, even if unintentional.”

Will looked at Rebecca.  “Do you think he’s jealous of his little sister?  He has had to give up some attention since the pregnancy.”  He swallowed while waiting for a response, hoping the classroom monitoring system couldn’t detect lies.

She nodded.  “There also hasn’t been much research on children who’ve gone through mechanotransfer.  Robots are incapable of many feelings, so maybe they just can’t recognize love when it happens.”

Mr. Tilden gathered his tablet.  “Well, I’ve given you two plenty to talk about.  Congrats, again, on the pregnancy.”

They stood to leave. “Thank you, Mr. Tilden.”

***

“Why did you do that?  Why did you say those awful things to Mr. Tilden?”

Aven looked to his feet, cameras actuating while he shuffled.

“We love you, Aven,” Rebecca pleaded.  She took him by the shoulder and shook him.  “If we didn’t love you, why would we have done so much to save you?  Of course we love you!”

The robot flinched.  “I know, Mommy.”

Will crossed his arms.  Though he had no reason, he doubted the robot’s words.  They had Aven’s usual tones of sincerity, but something about the metal body screamed of lies.

Rebecca didn’t seem to question its answer.  “Good.  Then you will keep your name?  You won’t say such awful things anymore?”

He nodded.  “I’ll stay Aven.”

“Good boy.  Now, who wants a hug to make it all better?”

Aven answered with a mere shrug while Rebecca placed her arms around the robot and squeezed.  “Hugs don’t make it better when you can’t feel them.”

***

Will’s hands shivered in the frosty cold.  The sod over the unmarked grave sunk under his weight.  “God help me,” he muttered, “God help me for what I did to you.”

He stroked the earth and thought about the robot at his house, the one he was legally bound to care for until it became an adult.  It had the same memories as his child, the same personality ticks, the same laugh and cry!

While Rebecca couldn’t see, he allowed a few tears to fall.  “I’m sorry, Aven.  I chose to give you a body rather than let you keep your mind.  The old iron lung would have been better than the new – please, please God, forgive me… forgive me…”

Continue reading

Robot Divorce Court

“The state of Massatucky has long insisted that marriage is between two consenting adult humans or robots.  We’ve upheld earlier court findings and obeyed federal regulations.”  The lawyer pressed his fingers down on the papers beneath him.  “It is our opinion that the fourteenth amendment protects this practice, as was shown in the 2058 Supreme Court ruling allowing it.”

“And the Microtech Robotics Company stipulates that these marriages are, by their very nature, non-consensual.  The laws of robotics make them so.”

The judges looked to each other.  The right to robot marriage was enacted in ’58, just like the state lawyer said, and no one had heard any complaints – save this one – in the twenty years since.  One crossed her arms and squinted the Microtech lawyer.  “Explain this to us, Mr. Kimura.”

Mr. Kimura nodded demurely and took out his papers.  “Survey results show the rates of happiness in marriages between one human and one robot, regardless of other sexual preferences, far outstrip the happiness in any other arrangement.  In the twenty years following legalization, my client was the first robot to request a divorce…”

***action android device electronics

***

“Mrs. Wilson, what were you thinking?”

The robot, female by structure and choice, looked to her thighs.  “I’m sorry, sir.  I didn’t realize it would cause you so much unhappiness.  I was just doing what I thought best, sir.”

The small-town lawyer, Mr. Juarez, scratched his head.  “You came in here asking for a divorce, and when your husband brought it to court, you told the judge you didn’t want it anymore.  It’s not been 10 minutes, and you’re asking me to try again?”

She put her hand, covered in peachy silicon, forward on his desk.  “Oh, please Mr. Juarez, I tried my best.  I gave you all the evidence you’d need to show that I must get a divorce.  Please, Mr. Juarez, you’ve got to make this happen.”

He pursed his lips.  “Show me your registration papers.  I’m going to call your company first, make sure you’re not full of bugs.”

***action android device electronics

***

Mr. Kimura looked over the call from the small-time lawyer in Massatucky.  Repeatedly, Mrs. Wilson’s brain had been scanned and showed no abnormalities.  Her model had gone through few recalls, and all faulty parts had been replaced on this housewife.  She wanted a divorce, according to her lawyer, Mr. Juarez, but would deny her own wish when she went to court.

Microtech had long positied its creations were people equivalent to the humans that built them.  To allow a robot, even one as low-ranked as Mrs. Wilson, to provably suffer at the hands of her human companion, was against policy.  Robot health insurance was, after all, the most lucrative arm of the company, and a robot’s denial of rights was the first step on a slippery slope toward removing their personhood.  He would protect her rights and, thus, the company’s value.

With his corporate resources, Mr. Kimura looked into previous robot divorce proceedings.  Plenty of material was available, and as with most robot dealings, the splitting of couples was amicable.  But then, something intrigued him: all of the proceedings had been initiated by the human member.

He called Mr. Juarez and requested an audience with Mrs. Wilson.

***action android device electronics

***

Mr. Kimura, convinced Mrs. Wilson wanted her divorce, sent her back with Mr. Juarez to perform the proceedings again.  He was confused, then, why the same results happened again a second time.

He plopped some papers down on a desk.  “Thank you for agreeing to help, Dr. Ngom.  I hope you’ve had a chance to look over this predicament?”

The robopsychologist nodded and pushed her glasses closer to her face.  “I have.  It’s a wonder no one’s thought of it before.”

“That simple, Dr.?”

She nodded.  “When she applies for a divorce, it’s obvious she’s defaulting to the third law – self preservation.  You’ve seen the evidence that staying in her house is going to get her killed.”

“But then why does she foil her own attempts to escape?  Mr. Juarez strongly instructed her what to say, and she had directions.  The second law, compelling her to follow human directions, should have made certain she followed through.”

“The first law compels her to act this way, Mr. Kimura.”  Dr. Ngom pointed to his papers.  “She’s trying to avoid harming her husband, regardless of whether he deserves it or not.”

“But she’s harming mine and Mr. Juarez’s credibility by doing so!”

The robopsychologist nodded.  “She’s weighing that.  What’s devious about this situation is how the first and third laws form a feedback loop in her brain.  With you and Mr. Juarez, you have a finite loss associated with her case.  With Mr. Wilson, his value becomes almost infinite.”

“Why is that?”

Dr. Ngom showed Mr. Kimura a statement from Mrs. Wilson.  “She says here that making him happy allows her to go ‘unpunished.’  By preventing Mr. Wilson from coming to harm, either physical or psychological, either perceived or real, Mrs. Wilson increased her chances of survivability.  Her survival increased Mr. Wilson’s happiness, which would then increase her chance of survival, and so on.  She wore that path into her mind so fully that Mr. Wilson’s happiness causes a positive feeback loop.”

Mr. Kimura nodded.  “So when she gets to court, when she can see whether or not Mr. Wilson is made happier by her actions, the value of his wellbeing overwhelms the value of any other.”

“Exactly.”

Mr. Kimura scratched his head.  “So… by this logic, what allows a robot to say no to a proposal?  Doesn’t saying ‘no’ cause immense psychological harm to the asker?”

Dr. Ngom nodded.  “That’s exactly what I wanted you to ask.”

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“So you see,” Mr. Kimura argued, “The robot has no method of escaping a bad situation, nor does it have the ability to deny entering in the first place.  Microtech argues that robots are, by design, incapable of giving consent to marriage.”

The judge nodded.  “And what ever happened to Mrs. Wilson?”

“She was found, deactivated, in ’76, sir.  Her body was scrapped in ’77.  It’s taken eight years for the case to find its way to the supreme court, sir, and there was plenty of time for Mr. Wilson to violently destroy her.”

The judge banged the gavel.  “This court upholds the previous findings, and the state of Massatucky is to continue providing licensure for human-robot couples.  The personal rights of humans and robots must, by the fourteenth amendment, include marriage.”

Mr. Kimura, furious, stood from his chair.  “This robot was murdered – as has many other robots!  How can you do this?  How can you ignore their plight?”

One of the judges squinted.  “What makes you think that humans don’t develop those same feedback loops?  Where if you do the right thing, the spouse will love you more, which will extend your own life, which can give you the chance to make it all better?  It’s an age old problem, one that getting rid of marriage fails to solve.”  He banged his gavel.  “Court is adjourned.”

***action android device electronics

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This story is intended to explore Asimov’s three laws of robotics and the boundaries of human interactions with robots following those rules.  It is in no way intended to specify any political leanings with regard to the 2015 court case Obergefell v. Hodges or any opinions on same-sex marriage or relationships.