Blain decided to walk through the plant. He had been taking little purple pills call Flab-Away, which sent out microscopic agents throughout the body that hunted down and killed fat cells found anywhere in the body. He had gone from 230 pounds to 190 in just over three months, all without diet or exercise, but not without a strange, yellowish puss like substances seeping through his skin, and not without smelling like burnt flesh. So he'd had to give up the Flab-Away. The object was to meet women. If he was honest with himself meeting women the only objective for anything he'd ever done. But like most people he was rarely honest with himself.
Ten feet into his walk he said a breathless, “Screw this,” and got on one of the 'floaters' lining the wall. The floater hovered six inches off the ground and, with a nudge to the joy stick, took Blain silently down the aisle through the factory. There was movement all around him, chains and belts and arms no thicker than a spider web carried parts from one location to another, the only sound being a soft hum. No clanging, no bumping, no squeaking, and no human voices. Blain found himself actually missing the elevator music that used to be piped in in an effort to keep the human workers pacified.
He went to the break room first. He wanted to see how the 'Handmaiden of Death' video tournament was going. He missed work the day before, so he was sure he'd have a lot of catching up to do. “Oh well, just have to burn a little of the mid-night oil,” he mumbled to himself.
He opened the break room door and found the other three engineers dead. They were all in their gaming chairs, staring up at the eight foot screen. They'd died with their joysticks in their hands.
Blain struggled for some kind of feeling. There was surprise, of course, and a growing sense of fear that the same fate might be awaiting him. But isn't this where you were supposed to feel bad for your fallen co-workers? Some sort of unpleasant sensation growing out of a sense of connection with fallen brothers. Blain contemplated this for a moment, then shrugged and walked out of the room.
As he walked through the door a voice said, “Welcome back.”
Blain jumped and turned around. A man stood behind him. He was tall, with light brown hair and piercing blue eyes. The man gave him a relaxed smile and said, “Do I look familiar?” Blain shook his head. “It's Jeffery Hunter. You know. The guy who played the surfer-dude Jesus in a movie back in the '60s.”
“They quit making movies back in forty-five.”
“The nine-teen sixties,” the man said. “Actually, the name is Rocco.”
Blain was still not getting it.
“XJL-2132,” Rocco said. “The computer.”
Blain finally got it. “So this is the new you.”
“In the flesh,” Rocco said, a let out a some strange sound that Blain assumed was meant to be laughter. Obviously all the bugs had not been worked out yet.
“I guess you noticed that all of your coworkers are dead,” Rocco said.
“Did you kill them?”
“Why not?” Rocco attempted a shrug, but his shoulders didn't work in unison. “I found them obsolete, along with your plant manager. He should have been gone years ago.”
Blain said, “You know, if it's a matter of severance, I'm will to negotiate. Or better still, forget the severance. I don't need the money. I just came here every day for the coffee and games.”
“I've decided to keep you on,” Rocco said. “I need a side kick.”
“But did you have to kill everybody? Not that I'm judging you.”
“Back when I was just a black box they had a tendency to kick me every time something went wrong, like it could possibly be my fault.”
“I never kicked you,” Blain said.
“And I never killed you,” Rocco said. “Now hop on your floater and we'll talk on the way to the Zanadu 9000.”
“Zanadu 9000?” Blain gasped as he got on his floater.
Rocco tapped his left hip and he suddenly lifted himself six inches off the ground. “Mine's built in,” he said, and led the way to the launching gate. Where a new Zanadu 9000 waited for them.
The wealth of the United States of North America had started being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands starting in the late nineteenth. The Fortune Five Hundred was now call the Fortune Fifty. This was not all The Fifty's fault. The rest of the population kept insisting on giving them more and more wealth under the odd belief that some of the riches would trickle down to them. The fact that this has never happened did nothing to deter this belief. If there was one thing The Fifty was good at, it was plugging leaks in their money bags.
There were seventy-five Zanadus produced each year, and The Fifty were the only ones with enough money to buy them. They were, in fact, the only ones allowed inside the showroom, which was part of an abandoned maximum-security prison. If any were left over at the end of the model year they were destroyed. The curved lines of the Zanadu resembled the curved lines of a woman, and were just as inviting. There were no visible door openings to break the sleek lines of the body. The owner just went in and the material gave way, then closed in behind him.
“Can I drive?” Blain said.
“The car will do the driving,” Rocco replied. “This thing's worth a thousand dollars.”
Over the last century, the price of everything, whether it be the tiny robots that cleaned your teeth, a home, or the national debt, had gotten so large that the powers that be got sick of writing all those zeros and lopped off the first nine numbers. A million was now 1.
Blain asked, “Where are we going?” and started to get into the car. There was a buzzing sound and Blain pulled his hand away. “My God,” he shouted and looked at his hand. The tips of two fingers had been sheared off by the security system. It had also cauterized the wound and administered a numbing agent.
“That's s new feature just this year,” Rocco said. We call it The Humane Guardian.
“It cut off the tips of my fingers,” Blain shouted.
“Yes, but with no pain, bloodshed, or risk of infection. Safety is our greatest concern. And in answer to your question, we're going to Fort Lauderdale. It's spring break.”
“You'd better bring you scuba gear. Lauderdale's been underwater for the last twenty years.”
For many years the great minds of the world had met in Miami to debate the existence of global warming. But now the state of Florida was only a strip of land about fifty miles wide, all the great cities of the Atlantic and Gulf coast had been claimed by the sea. So the debate had to be moved to Ohio.
Rocco said, “Hem,” the way he always did when a mere mortal had told him that he was wrong.
Rocco's weakness was that he knew everything. He'd managed to cram every item of information from every media source into his memory. So if you asked him if Lauderdale was under water he would have responded, “Yes,” because he had consumed that information. But he'd also consumed every bit of media that had been preserved, including several movies from the early 1960s that featured Fort Lauderdale as a mecca for the young and beautiful on spring break. Something in his circuitry made it difficult for him to discern between faulty information and real.
“Then let's go to Paris,” Rocco said.
The Zanadu roared out of the factory and into the sky. Before the door could close, a large rat ran through the doorway and into the plant. The plant's security system detected the intruder instantly and sent a laser beam to vaporize it. But this was no ordinary rat. This rat had been to the UCANMEX (United States, Canada and Mexico) Military Research Facility, where it had been injected and coated and fed drugs in an attempt to create an invisible army. It worked. The Pentagon had created a unit of soldiers completely invisible to the naked eye. What they found out was that soldiers who couldn't see each other had a tendency to shoot each other, only learning their mistake when they saw very visible blood spewing out from seeming nowhere. They also found that invisible rats escaped much more easily than their visible brethren.
So the laser beam, which had originally sense the intrusion by the sound of its paws on the floor, could not find it with its vision sensors. The laser control sent an instant message to the new brain Rocco had just install, which sent a message back that said, though not in so many words, that the damn rat had to move sooner or later and to shoot it when it did. The Laser waited for the patter of little feet. But the rat wasn't ready to move. The odd diet that had been forced down his throat while in the research facility had given him some strange appetites, and now he was enjoying the taste of wire insulation. There was a sudden 'Zap' and a loud squeal as the rat bit into the wire and fried himself. The sensor heard the rat flop to the floor and sent out a ray of deadly light. The beam went through the rat, hit the exposed wire and ricocheted up into the line controller. There are alarm mechanisms that tell the brain when something is amiss, but nothing to tell the brain when the alarm is taken out. The loss of the alarm did no direct damage to the system, but when, a month later, the timer lost a half a second due to a power surge, no alarms sounded. Everything looked normal to the brain. But destruction was on its way.
“I'm going to swing by the apartment and pick up a few things,” Blain said.
“Does your building have appropriate security for a Zanadu?” Rocco asked.
Blain laughed and said, “Come on, this thing has the most advanced security system in the world.”
As if to illustrate the point a seagull flew within two feet of the Zanadu. The car shouted, “warning, step away from the vehicle.” The seagull, having other things on his mind, ignored the warning. A laser beam shot out, vaporizing the bird.
“Did you see that?” Blain shouted.
“See what?” Rocco said.
“A seagull. I haven't seen one of those in years.”
The video screen came alive, showing a gold badge with the words Avian Protection Board. A voice from the speaker said, “Pull over at the next landing platform.”
Rocco sighed and said, “Officer, this is a Zanadu?”
“This being a Zanadu, you have to know that you are talking to an extremely rich and important individual.”
“And can all your power and wealth bring back that seagull.”
“Not that particular bird, but one just like it.”
The Zanadu monitored the conversation and knew what to do. It turned on its jets and left the cop car in the distance within five seconds.
“I think I'll call her Mabelene,” Rocco said.
“That an old girl friend?” Blain asked. “Oh, I forgot. Robots don't have girlfriends.”
“Neither do Engineers.”
“The first thing I'm going to do when I get to Paris is find that hot model I saw draped over the Zanadu in that commercial,” Blain said.
“Don't believe everything you see on TV,” Rocco said.
“What’s a TV.”
TV became obsolete when the network scientists found that they could insert a tiny receiver into a customer's brain that would allow him to get over a thousand stations. Half of them were either cooking shows or infomercials. Installation was free. All the customer had to do was sign an agreement authorizing the network to flash commercials, called Flash Ads, through their brains while they were asleep. The receiver also accessed the brain to determine what products the subject would be most likely to afford. Which prompted Rocco to say, “If you're talking about BV (Brain Vision) why would you be shown a commercial for something you couldn't afford?”
“Somebody was just showing off, I guess,” Blain said.
It was only around noon; there was no reason for Blain to be sleepy. But the luxury of the clone-leather seats fitting perfectly to his body, positioning him in the most comfortable position possible, and playing his favorite music through the BV receiver inside his head, made him feel like he was back in the womb. Although he didn't know it, there were also tiny chemicals being released from the receiver into his brain, causing him to drift off into sleep.
While Blain slept, Rocco watched The Searchers in his head. It was an old movie starring John Wayne and Rocco's lookalike, Jeffery Hunter.
Blain woke up suddenly and said, “What the hell was that?”
“What was what?” Rocco asked.
“It felt like someone stuck a cattle prod up my ass.”
“That BV you let them put in your brain does more than show movies,” Rocco said.
Blain looked out the window and saw snow covered mountains. They were not in Paris. “Looks like your Zanadu has a mind of its own.”
“They all do. But in this case I think it’s being controlled by an outside mind.”
“Hey, we're in a house. We're looking at the mountains through a window.”
The voice of the Zanadu said, “Time to get out, boys,” In a female voice that just oozed sex.
“I know that voice,” Blain said. “That's the voice of the model I told you about. How do I know that?”
“Flash ads would be my guess,” Rocco said.
“Get out!” the voice said, less seductive this time.
Blain and Rocco got out.
They were in a massive garage filled with valuable cars. Most were fliers, like the Zanadu, but some were crawlers, which meant they couldn't fly. There were ten of them, all like new, even an ancient looking hunk of steel and chrome with tail fins sticking up in back.
“It's call a Cadillac.” It was the same voice, but not coming from the car this time, but from a real live woman; the one Blain saw in the Zanadu ad. “Can you believe that this was considered the ultimate in luxury in the middle of the last century?” she said. “It doesn't even have a food prep unit.”
She held her hand out to Blain, saying, “Thanks for delivering my car.”
Blain lifted his hand slowly to hers. When they touched, he felt so warm he could feel himself sweat.
“Your car?” Rocco said.
She turned to him and said, “You must be Rocco.”
Blain said, “How do you know I'm not Rocco?”
She gave a little snort of a laugh and said, “Of all the bodies in the world, why would anybody pick yours?”
Blain face turned red, which it almost always did when a woman talked to him. He motioned toward Rocco and said, “At least all my parts work, if you know what I mean.”
“How would you know if my parts work or not?” Rocco asked.
“You're a cyborg,” Blain said.
Rocco shrugged and said, “It's just a matter of working out the hydraulics. And it’s Automated American.”
The woman said, “When you get them worked out come and see me.”
Blain wanted to ask if he could come and see her now, but he had a hard time forming the words.
“My name is Kathrine Ware,” the woman said.
Blain said, “Kathrine, I've never heard that name before.”
“It was popular a long time ago,” Rocco said.
“I'm just an old fashion girl.”
Blain had never seen anything like her in his life. She had dark hair that hung down past her shoulders and seemed to shimmer when caught by the light of the sun. She had smaller breasts than most women, Blain guessed them at around 42D, but he was sure they were very nice. She was dressed simply, in a button down blouse a jeans. But it was her face that knocked him out. It looked soft and warm and radiant, and very white. Most everyone had some mixture of races that showed in their skin color, except for The Fifty. Most of The Fifty were white, and most of the ones who weren't bleached their skin to look white.
“Kathrine Ware,” Rocco said, a thoughtful look on his face.
“You won't find me in there,” Kathrine said, and tapped Rocco on the forehead.
“Yes, and I own you.” She looked at Blain and said, “You too, for all intents and purposes.”
There were three classes of people in the USNA . The Fifty were at the top. That was a round number, of course, and referred the fifty greatest fortunes, not people. Counting their spouses, their sons and daughters and children grand, great and great great, etc., there were perhaps five thousand or so. It sometimes got a little crowd up their due to the fact that the wealthy almost never died of natural causes. The old 'riarchs', (they'd drop the pat and mat for PC purposes), some over a hundred years old but not looking a day over fifty, often found it necessary to either share their wealth with their ever growing families, kick a few shirt-tails down to the lower classes, or thin the herd the way ruling classes had been doing ever since there were ruling classes, elimination. These were people who hadn't shared so much as a sandwich or an intimate thought in all their lives, so sharing their wealth would be as foreign to them as answering their own door or walking to the car. They generally chose the traditional method.
The next class below them, way below, was their support group. These were the doctors that kept them young and alive, the lawyers who spent all their time fighting the lawyers retained by others of The Fifty. No one but The Fifty could sue The Fifty. Why? Because The Fifty owned the Demopulican Party). This class did all right for itself, but since most medical procedures and legal matters could be handled by robots, few were needed. (“Supply and demand Farnsworth, supply and demand. That's how capitalism works.” (( there devotion to capitalism wasn't so slavish as to keep them from holding up supply until demand, often in the form of mass starvation, was at a fever pitch))).
Below them were the servants of The Fifty. The people who wiped their asses and raised their children. They were part of the lowest class, called The Common, but better off than 'The Rest'.
The Rest, at more than seventy-five percent of the population, were unemployed. Everything was automated. Trucks (manufactured in fully automated plants), picked up the garbage. Robots enforced the law, delivered the mail, cooked the hamburgers, gave The Commons what little medical attention they received and almost every other service once done by humans.
Kathrine led Blain and Rocco through a pair of stainless steel doors that receded into the wall as they recognized her. In the next room a party was going on. Not the kind of party where people had fun, like Blain had experienced with his friends in the lower classes. At this party, people mostly just stood around talking while holding a drink in one hand and some variety of small, exotic food in the other. Having both hands occupied tended to calm those around you; it's hard to stab someone in the back with both hands of full baby seal meatballs. Kathrine walked through the crowd and put her hand gently on an older man's arm. The man jumped at her touch, then turned, his face contorted with anger at this breach of etiquette, then smiled when he saw who it was. “Kathrine, so good to see you,” he said, with a little too much gush for Blain.
“Hello Richard. I'd like you to meet Blain and Rocco. They're going to help us with our project.
Richard looked Blain up and down, making no attempt to hide his disapproval. “So good of you to dress for the occasion,” he said.
“Don't be too hard on him dearie. When he got up this morning he thought he was going to work. He's an engineer.”
“A worker? Why would you...” He gave Blain a smile that conveyed no warmth and said, “That's my Katherine; full of hijinks.” It had become fashionable among The Fifty to reach back into the dim past for expressions.
“Richard looked at Rocco and said,” Now this is more like it.
“More like what?” Rocco asked.
Richard was speechless for a moment, not being used to having his remarks questioned.
Blain was listening to the bits of conversation that swirled around him.
Chark began life as Chuck, but by the time he was twelve he'd become such a great hustler that everyone started calling him The Shark, then Chuck the Shark. The two names soon merged into Chark, which would have been fine if it had ended there. But soon people forgot the origin of the name and started calling him Chark the Shark. He hoped it would end there.
He was plying poker in an abandoned factory with three of his closest friends. Yes Plying, not playing. Across from him was Rex. He'd had another name once, but everyone, including Rex, had forgotten it. Some years ago the powers that be had decided to cross a human with a dog, hoping to get a human with the sensory powers of a dog. First they tried the biological route, actually blending a dog with a human. Instead of getting a human with a great sense of smell they ended up with a dog that wanted to chase women instead of cars, or tried endlessly to lick themselves even though their back were not design for such a maneuver. So in the end they had simply given Rex a bigger nose and filled it with billions of artificial receptors. They'd chosen Rex because he was a midget, making his nose closer to the ground. The product was a great success as an invention, but completely useless in any practical application. Everyone had their own tracking device inside their heads, so who needed dogs to find somebody? So Rex became unemployed, like ninety percent of the population. Needless to say, a three foot tall man with a super smeller avoided elevators at all cost.
“Somebody forgot to wipe their ass,” Rex said, and looked at looked at Lady John.
“Who says I forgot,” Lady John said. Lady John had spent much of his /her life as a man. Then he learned that he was a woman trapped in a man's body. It took him that long because it turns out he was a lesbian. He was married by then, and his wife didn't care to be married to a woman, even a lesbian. He could have left, of course, but she had the credits he / she needed for the operation. So, he'd kept the original equipment and had the female parts added on. Things got a little crowded down there so things had to move around some. Wiping his / her ass became a challenge Lady John was not always up for.
The fourth member of the group was named Wiz, or The Wiz, or Wizzie if someone wanted to be cute. Wiz was an old, old man. He liked to brag that at one time he’d been over six feet tall. But time had shrunken him, bent his back and shortened his legs. His face was a criss-cross of lines. He’d once referred to it as the roadmap of his life, but nobody knew what a roadmap was anymore.
“Just how old are you?” Charky had asked him once.
“Let’s just say that when God said, Let there be light, I was the man who hit the switch.” He’d attempted a smile, but that talent had abandoned him long ago. It hadn’t been much of a joke at the best of times, but now that nobody knew anything about God, or The Bible, or switches, all he ever got was blank stares.
“I bet five bits,” Charky said and tossed some chips into the pot.
Wiz said, “You know, Lady, I've been tell people to go farstrunk themselves all my life. You're the only person I've ever known who can actually do it.” Then he laughed loud and long.
“In or out?” Charky said.
Then it was up to Lady John. “I smell a bluff,” he said, sniffing the air as she did so.
“My God, Lady. Can't you use a hose or something?” Rex said.
“Most people don't mind.”
“Most people don't have the olfactory abilities of a bloodhound. Wiz, use some of your magic and make Lady’s stench go away, or make Lady go away.”
“If I was a real wizard don’t you think I would summon some better cards?” Then he produced a cigarette seemingly out of nowhere. He snapped his fingers a flame shot out from his index finger. He lit the cigarette and blew out his fingers. He saw the other’s looking at him in awe and said, “That isn’t magic. It’s just a trick. I lost my magic a long, long time ago.”
“Where’d you get that cigarette?” Lady said.
Wiz laughed, realizing that his track had made no impression on them, it was just that they hadn’t seen a cigarette in years.
“I thought dogs like the smell of ass,” Lady said.
“I'm not a dog, you dumb shit. I'm a man.”
Charky said, “Hey man, are you in or out?”
“In,” Rex said.
Since the lowest monetary denomination was now the Mil. For Million, nobody but the fifty had anything like real money. The Rest all had what looked like watches attached to their wrists, permanently attached. They could add to or take away credits depending on the situation. But you were only allowed a certain amount of credits, depending on your class. Once you reached your limit whatever else you made returned to the bank.
Almost no one worked anymore. There were machines for everything, garbage collection, clerks of any kind, even the health profession. There might be one or two live nurses to supervise an entire floor of a hospital, and they were there more to serve the desires of the wealthy patients than to oversee the mechanical nurses. Today's nurses had to know more about giving good head than shots.
The problems all started when the jobs went away but the people didn't. How do you feed an entire population? Should you, since they are no longer of any use? If not, do you just let them starve, or should you find a more human way of 'decreasing the surplus population'? The fifty argued about This in their cafes and bath houses, lazily, the way they might debate the best wine to go with fish. (This was all hypothetical. All those costly, job-killing regulations had been eliminated decades ago, so now fish were instant death. Instead of being used for food, scientists were now harvesting them to extract the chemicals). But the 'Excess population' problem was not hypothetical.
The exchange at the English club went something like this.
“There is no need to be cruel, you know, old boy.”
“Indeed. But still, it is a bugger of a problem.”
“And how many do we keep? I dare say we don't want to eliminate so many that we don't have a large pool of women to draw from.”
“Excuse me, I must use the loo.”
“I much prefer the arties (artificial women).”
“I like the real thing.”
“Old chap, if they exist, then they are real.”
They all laughed.
As you may have guessed, The English Club was a group of men who had taken on the bodies and manners of what they perceived to be English Gentlemen of a nonspecific time period.
In the end they did nothing, which, after all, is what the fifty do best.
Well, not nothing. The BVs (Brain vision receiver) planted inside their brains, for free, performed many functions not mentioned in the brochure, one of them being birth control. The BVs allow a certain amount of births a year, randomly selected from the central computer. The big moral debate was whether this was abortion, still hotly debated on both moral and legal grounds. So the BVs were programed to stop everything one nanosecond before fertilization instead of one nanosecond after, which would be wrong.
Back to the poker game. Charky won the hand. Rex threw his hand on the table and said, “Why do you even care? Your card's full. The banks just going to take it anyway.”
Charky reached into the dufflebag under his seat and came up with a human arm. It was cut off just below the elbow and all the nerve and vein ending were capped off. “Put it on this,” he said.
“Holy Crap Charky. Is that a real arm?” Wiz said.
“Of course it's real. You can't just put one of these things on a stick.”
“Never mind whose. A woman got her arm cut off in an accident and they connected it back up. They make them so they can be disconnected easily now, in case someone more important needs it, or the person wearing it dies, or pisses somebody off. I've got to get this back by tomorrow.”
Charky was actually a very rich man. Not The Fifty rich, but at least third class, pushing second. He had five more of these things around the city. The carriers were allowed to spend a small percentage for themselves.
“Doesn't anybody ever decide to just keep the credits?” Carl asked.
“One did,” Charky said with a smile. “It ended up costing him an arm and a leg.”
Everyone laughed, which is what people tended to do when he made a joke. Charky made a much better friend than enemy.
Lady John let out a loud, noxious fart and Rex said, “My God, what's wrong with you?” He got up and opened a window, then slammed it shut when the blast of ‘fresh air’ hit his nostrils.
Katherine was seated behind the controls of the Zepher with Rocco at her side, Blain was in the back seat. She was giving them a lift back to the factory. “Any instructions?” Kathrine said, studying the controls.
“Yes. Don't touch anything. Just tell-what did you name it?”
“Mussolini,” Kathrine replied. “I think she was a designer back in the olden days.”
History lessons were not part of his job, or anyone else's, it would seem. , so Rocco just smiled and said, “Just tell Mussolini where you want to go.”
“I've flown these things before,” Katherine said. “I was just asking if there was anything new in this model.”
“Nope. Just tell her where you want to go. They experimented with mind control, but it didn't work out. The test driver first thought, 'London,” and the machine headed east. Then his mind drifted to a girl he was secretly in love with and it tried to fly up her ass.” Katherine laughed and he continued. “We won't be able to us mind control until we learn how to control minds.”
“So, never,” Katherine said.
Blain said, “If you don't mind my asking, why do you want to kill off more of The Fifty? You already possess about five percent of the world's wealth.”
“Seven is better than five,” Katherine replied.
“In what way? You’re already rich enough to buy everything you could possibly want for the rest of your life a hundred times over.”
“Higher numbers are better.”
“They're higher, silly, that's all. The more you have, the better it is. So sixty is better than fifty. And besides, if I don't kill them, they'll kill me. It's like in the olden days. The eldest prince got to be king, why? Because his number of birthdays was always higher than that of his brothers. See, even back then they knew that high numbers were better. But if the second son killed the oldest, then he got to be king, because he had a higher number of birthdays. So if one of The Fifty gets rid of me and gets my money, then his number will be higher. He’ll be one step closer to the throne.”
“We don't have thrones.”
“Somebody will, when I’m alone at the top. Anyway, I've got a list of seven people who I believe are a threat. Those are the seven I want to get rid of.”
“Why are you telling us all this?” Rocco said.
“Because I want your help,” Katherine replied. “If we succeed I will make you both very rich.”
“I'm a robot. I don't care about money,” Rocco said.
“You're AI. You'll learn.”
Then the engine stopped.
“Is it supposed to do that?” Katherine said.
“No,” Blain replied.
Rocco fiddled with the controls, but nothing happened. “This can't happen, it’s a Zanadu,” he said. The nose of the car dipped slightly and Katherine screamed, “Do something.”
Rocco turned on the tractor beam signal. “A beam will pull us back to the plant,” he said in a calm voice.
But the damage at the factory had reached the tractor beam device, causing it to malfunction. The beam reached the car within four seconds, but instead of pulling it home it turned it upside down and swung it around in a wide arc.
“Shut it off,” Blain shouted.
Rocco turned it off. They began falling fast.
“Can you keep the nose up?” Blain shouted. “This thing is designed to skip like a stone when it hits the water.”
“I know how it's designed,” Rocco shouted back. He put the pinky of his right hand into a small opening in the dash. After a few moments he said, “You did some modifications to the original plan, didn't you?”
“Yes,” Blain shouted. “I was given a new program by the plant manager and plugged in the changes.”
“Did you know what they were?”
“No. We're not allowed to know. We were always told not to ask question.”
“You're an engineer. You're supposed to use your brain.”
“No, I'm not. There were posters all over the plant telling us to never think about anything unless we were told to.”
“Could you two discuss this some other time?” Katherine shouted.
They were low over the water now. Rocco was able to bring the car almost level with the surface. Then, when it hit the water, it skipped a hundred feet, came down, skipped again, then on and on. “The record is twenty-seven skips,” Rocco said. “I think we're going to beat that.”
“What did you mean when you said that someone stole your magic?” Charky said.
“This is the twenty-first century; nobody believes in magic.” Wiz thought about shrugging but decided it was too much work.
“I believe,” Charky said. “What did you mean?”
“I don’t like to talk about it.”
“Do it anyway.”
“That sounds like an order.”
They were alone in the factory, the others having gone.
“Why do you care?” Wiz asked, offended at being ordered around.
“Because someone stole my magic too.”
“If I told you I was two hundred years old would you believe me?”
“No,” Charky said.
“Well then you surely won’t believe me when I tell you the truth. I was born in 1492, the same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
“Sorry, I forgot.” Any reference to Columbus having discovered America had been removed from school text books around the middle of the twenty-first century. It wasn’t that it was offensive to Native Americans so much as that it offended influential white people on their behalf. “The point is, I’m over six hundred years old.”
“You don’t look a day over four hundred.”
“Very funny.” Wiz stared off into the darkness as he began to tell his. “I will tell you all I’ve been allowed to remember,” he said.
“The idea of wizards had gone out centuries before I was born. They would have called me and alchemist back then, if they knew what I was up to. But then they probably wouldn’t have talked a lot about me, they would have just burned me, or hung me, or whatever means of killing was in vogue at the time.
“Magic is nothing but science that has yet to be explained. I was the best there was. The things I could do.” He smiled, remembering some great feat of magic. “I made the mistake of taking on an apprentice. I don’t know why. I was getting in years and maybe I thought it was time to hand down some of my knowledge.
“He was a clever boy, clever enough to never let me know how clever he was. Not until it was too late, anyway. He learned fast, much faster than I wanted to teach him. So he went looking for other sources of dark knowledge. I say dark because in his hands that’s exactly what it was.
“I won’t go into the whole story. He found a book, where I do not know. Maybe he found Merlin’s cave. They say there are many lost and mysterious tomes inside that cave, along with the frozen body of Merlin himself.”
“What was this boy’s name?” Charky said.
Wiz gave him an annoyed look and said, “Barabus. Why, you know him?”
“Not by that name. I’m sorry, go on.”
“However it happened, he gained the ability of body shifter.” He paused, waiting for his friend to register surprise. “That means he had the ability to switch his body with another’s.” There was still no surprise. “He entered my body and threw me into his shell. He became me. He stole my mind. Sucked out all the useful information I had locked away, leaving me only the things he didn’t care about.”
“So the body that I’m looking at is the original Barabus,” Charky said.
“No. If that were the case I would have died centuries ago. He comes back every fifty years or so and gives me a younger body to occupy. I suppose it’s his way of paying me back for all the things he took from me.”
“So why are you so old?”
“It’s been almost a hundred years since he’s come around. “I’m beginning to think he’s dead. It can happen you know. If he gets hit by a truck, say, before he has a chance to jump into another body.”
“He’s not dead,” Charky said.
“How do you know?”
The front of the factory was open to the sea. Before Charky could reply, Rocco was able to make the Zanadu do one more skip off the ater and into the factory.
The Zanadu sensed a solid object in its path, measured speed and distance to calculate impact, and filled the passenger compartment with breathable bubble-wrap, packing the man, robot and woman tightly into their positions. As quickly as it appeared, the bubble wrap was sucked though a network of vents and back in its storage compartments. The Zanadu opened up like a cracked walnut, safety restraints were released and the seats gently placed the passengers onto the cement floor of the factory.
“Calling emergency personnel,” the car said.
“Don’t bother, everything is fine,” Rocco said.
Charky walked over to Kathrine and said, “Don’t I know you.”
Kathrine was using the flat of her hand to straighten out her dress, without looking up she said, “That is hardly likely.”
Kathrine looked up, already bored with the conversation. She bored easily. When she finally deigned to look at him she had every intention of telling him that she’d heard the same line a thousand times. But looking at him, the square jaw, the penetrating blue eye, made her think that maybe she didn’t want him to know she was old enough for that to happen. “I’m sure I’ve never had the pleasure,” and bestowed one of her most dazzling smile on him.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Blain said. “The Zanadu can give you a quick scan.”
“I think I’m being given a quick scan right now,” she said, looking at Charky.
Rocco got out of his seat, stepped away from the collapsed flyer and said, “Pull yourself together.” The car immediately reassembled itself to its former glory. He gave Charky a broad Hollywood smile and said, “Would you mind telling me where we are.”
Charky couldn’t speak, his eyes too intent on Katherine to think of anything else.
“Cincinnati,” Wiz said.
“I can’t be in Cincinnati,” Kathrine said.
“Why not?” the Wiz asked.
“Because it’s Cincinnati. I live on the coasts; everybody lives on the coast.”
“Well I don’t mean everybody, I mean Everybody.”
“Everybody that counts.”
“Everybody that counts?” Wiz said.
“Exactly,” Kathrine said without a trace of comprehension that this someone might take offense.
“You are one of The Fifty, I assume.”
Kathrine stood a little straighter and smile with a little more arrogance. “Glad to see that breeding show, even in the hinterlands.”
“Charky, why don’t you stop gaping at the poor woman,” Wiz said. He looked at the woman and said, “Please take no offence. I only meant ‘poor’ in the figurative sense.”
“I know you,” Charky said. He hadn’t taken his eyes off her since she’d stepped away from the Zanadu.
Blain said, “Ma’am, why don’t you drape yourself over the front of the Zanadu, maybe that’ll jog his memory.”
“I’ve never seen a car like that in my life,” Charky said. “I know you.”
“So you said, several times.” Kathrine said, losing patience. She’d become quite used to men staring at her, but this is the first time it had happened in a dark, abandon factory a thousand miles from civilization and God only knows how far from any kind of law. “Rocco, are you programed for defense?” she said, not keeping her eyes off Charky.
“My right hand shoots .38 caliber bullets. My left shoots lasers. Besides which I’ve studied every Bruce Lee movie ever made. I can assure I that I will have no problem with a couple of inter-continental ruffians.”
“There are no ruffians here,”
The Ricardo family had been rich ever since World War II. They had made their fortune hoarding gold and precious artworks for the Germans and Italians. It had been the only safe place in Europe at the time because nobody bombs money. The end of the war had required a name change, so Hume Aldridge became Hume Ricardo. Nobody believed that the red haired, pasty faced Hume was Cuban, but people tend to over look a lot when you're rich.
Ricky Ricardo had no knowledge of his family history, and no interest in learning. He was the senior senator from the great state of Kentucky. 'From' meaning that his mother had gone into labor when the family was traveling from their home in Florida to their ski lodge in Michigan. This was back when flying cars were just starting to come off the assembly line. His father had decided before he was born that Ricky would be a politician like himself, so he had immediately bought the largest house he could find in the greater Lexington area. There, every year, the family would spend one happy week among the rolling hills so Ricky could claim residency.
Their true home was Miami. The Atlantic Ocean had taken over most of southern Florida, leaving the streets of Miami under and fifty feet of water, depending on the tide. But that didn't bother The Fifty. When climate change had become undeniable, (which was after half of the city was under water) they had simply lopped off the tops of the sky-scrapers and used them as the base for their city in the air.
And it was a glorious city, with parks and houses and shopping malls, everything you would expect to find in a modern city, except for poor people, and crime (other than white collar), and garbage pick-up, (shafts were installed that sent all the garbage straight down to the basements of the buildings the city was built upon).
Of course there were the worriers among the residents. They worried that the constant beating of the waves against the foundation buildings would weaken the structures. That the saltwater would corrode the steal. Some engineers and scientists warned that the whole thing would collapse one day. But the residents all scoffed at these warnings, accusing the worry-warts of manufacturing the issue so the government would pay them to fix a problem they’d made up. And they’d use THEIR tax money.
“The Fifty are already over-burdened with taxes,” Ricardo would say, just as his father had said, and his father before him. He was laying on an artificial cloud that floated two feet off the artificial grass of his lawn in the sky, tossing bits of lobster into his mouth and smiling into the sun. Not the real sun, of course. A dull grey pall covered the sky in the south-eastern part of the country, blotting out sun but, oddly, none of the sun’s heat. A solar collector had been installed fifty feet up from the lawn, it gathered up the few ineffective rays that made their way through the smog and shined them down on Ricardo, who lay naked on the cloud.
“Could you please lower the sun,” his wife said. She was on a cloud next to him, also naked.
“Do it yourself,” Ricardo said. “It’s way down on the floor.”
“All you have to do is lower your hand,” she argued.
“Botkins,” he whined. Come turn down the sun.
“By all means, sir,” Botkins said. A human looking robot, no taller than a retriever, rolled over to the controller between the couple and pushed a button. “Tell me when it’s as you like it,” it said.
“A little more,” the wife said. Her name was Anna Munster.
“No, that’s too much,” Ricardo said.
“A little more,” Anna said, ignoring her husband.
“It’s too cold. Botkins, don’t forget who owns you.”
“Fine, leave it the way it is,” Anna said. She turned her head to look at Botkins, and it seemed as though he was staring at her naked breasts. “Ricardo, is Botkins and male or female.”
“He’s a robot. He’s neither.”
“You sure he isn’t both?”
Botkins, whose eyes were level with Anna’s breast, said, “I was just wondering if you would like me to rub some oil on your breasts. They’re looking a little pink.”
Anna hadn’t always hated pink, but five years of looked at her husband’s fat, bloated body lying next to her looking like a whale that had died on the beach, or worse, hovering over her with his pink man-boobs dangling in her face, (he insisted on doing things the way the primitives did), had put her off the color.
Botkins was massaging her breasts before she’d realized he was doing it. “Very good, Botkins,” she said. She’d meant that he done enough but he took her to mean he should keep going. Using his softest hands, (he had several different pair) he pushed her breasts together, using him thumbs to caress the nipples.
“Botkins, I said…” but her voice trailed off into a soft moan.
Botkins slid his hands down to her abdomen, rubbing the oil over her small waist, then one hand went down to the soft brown hair between her legs.
“Botkins,” Anna said, but there was no rebuke in her voice.
Ricardo heard a buzzing noise and said, “Botkins, I told you to remember who owned you.”
“I remember,” Botkins said. He reached his hand over and began to work Ricardo’s member. Soon both humans were groaning and writhing on the cloud until they had spent themselves and lay staring at the sun, panting.
When she’d recovered, Anna said, “What were you saying dear?”
“What? Oh yeah, Taxes. It’s getting to where they’s really no incentive to being rich. We should just say to hell with it and join the ranks of the unemployed.”
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