Fritz couldn’t draw his self-portrait in crayon. Not unless they made a color called “liver” to match the spots that dappled his thin and aging skin. Seafoam might work for the obvious and pliable veins that shone through like some anatomical model, but the electric white of his sporadic hair wouldn’t even show up on paper. Not that anybody used paper anymore. Or crayons.
He glanced away from the back of his decrepit hand in disgust, focusing instead on the immaculate and voluptuous young woman forcing his weak arm through the sleeve of a threadbare shirt at the bedside. Erma.
She wore natural trousers that clung to her ample backside, stacking ineffability on top of perfection. Her face, free of the finest of lines and wrinkles, broadcast an unattainable air of apathy.
“The sweater, too,” he said after his shirt was on.
“No,” she replied. “It’s ancient and pilling all over the place. Besides, it’s too hot for a sweater.”
“I like it warm in the morning.”
“You like it warm all the time, old man.”
A small sting, but more than enough to crush his token resistance. Oblivious to her victory, Erma slipped a pair of sensible, elastic-waisted bottoms onto him and then transferred him to his mobility chair with a dispassionate hug. Fritz savored the contact, hollow as it was.
Her task complete, Erma sashayed to the bedroom door. Fritz watched her go, licking his chapped lips with a dry tongue, forgiving her insouciance in a quick uptake of breath. There was no outlet for his desire, but it was still there, even after all this time. She looked like she had twenty-two years, if that. They’d been married for seventy.
And then he was alone, blanketed in the quiet fug of his own making. Antiquated paper books on sagging shelves insinuated their musty potpourri into every available surface. An unintegrated mobile that hadn’t rung in twenty years wallowed on the bedside table. Three pairs of archaic eyeglasses waited for him on a desk of scattered miscellany. He panicked for a moment before finding the fourth, his favorite, already on his head.
After mustering the motivation, he rolled out of his homey cave and found Erma sprawled across the lounge in her own bedroom, a cold and minimalist wasteland echoed by the rest of the flat. She was on the phone, yapping away at the integrated hardware embedded in her palm.
“Who was that?” he asked after she’d hung up.
Her smile vanished. “Gabor,” she said. “From work.”
“Have I heard of him before?”
“Who can keep up?” she asked. “Here.” She held her palm in front of his face, showcasing a photo.
“Not so close,” he said, leaning back until it came into focus.
It was a man, Slavic, with thick, healthy hair and tasteful liner accentuating his eyes. He looked to be mirroring at about twenty-five.
“How many years does he have?” Fritz asked.
“One hundred thirty.”
“Ooh. An older man.”
Erma uttered a noncommittal grunt.
He studied the photo some more. “When was this taken?”
“The work-only party?”
“Then why is there a child on the edge of the frame?”
“Don’t be a bore, Fritz,” she said, returning the hand to her porcelain cheek. A grin, concealed too late, flashed across her rosy lips. “That reminds me. I have a Safety Committee meeting tonight.”
“Can I come too? I could use some fresh air…”
“Sorry, my dear, meeting’s at a second floor walk up. Maybe next time.”
His jaw tightened. “Is He going to be there?”
“Who? Gabor?” she asked with a yawn. “Probably.”
“Are you two sleeping together?”
“Honestly, Fritz, what kind of question is that? Of course we’re sleeping together.” The grin returned. “Amongst other things.”
His head sank. “I wish you knew how bad that hurts me.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said, inspecting her lustrous hair for split ends. “I haven’t left you. Everyone says I’m an angel for everything I do for you. That I deserve something for myself. Even your mother.”
“She probably just feels guilty for how she treated my father.”
Erma stood up. “I don’t have time for this,” she said. “So the treatment didn’t work on you two. You age. So what? We all have problems.” She glided out of the room.
“And what are your problems?” Fritz asked, chasing her into the hallway. “Herpes?”
She stopped at the front closet and opened the door. An electronic melody chimed from within. “Herpes has been eradicated for decades, old man,” she said. “And I’m not going to debate my love life with you.”
Servos whirred and The Thing staggered out of the closet beside her.
Fritz stopped. “No,” he said. “Put it back.”
“You need help,” she said. “Chemise can’t take care of you until she’s healed and presentable again, so Helping Hans will have to do in the meantime.”
“I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Don’t talk so stupid. What if you fall again?”
Fritz sighed. “Fine. But I’m not calling it that.”
“What? Helping Hans?”
A digital manifestation of a smiling face illuminated on The Thing’s facial display.
“Does someone need a Helping Hans?” The Thing asked in an earnest, mechanical voice.
Erma pointed at Fritz. “There’s your man,” she said.
The Thing pivoted on its rickety legs and staggered toward Fritz. “Greetings, Chemise Beauregard,” it said.
Fritz glared at his wife. “Tell me again why we settled for a secondhand robot?”
“Because Chemise charged a lot less to reprogram her RehaBot than the price of a premium rental,” she replied, strutting to the front door and inspecting herself in the mirror beside it. “We’re on a budget, silly. A cleft in my chin isn’t going to pay for itself.”
After Erma left the flat, Fritz and The Thing stared at each other for a good five minutes. That is to say, Fritz stared at it while it just stood there like the over-engineered floor lamp it was.
Eventually, his eyelids grew heavy from the lack of stimulation and then drifted shut. His jaw slackened and his mouth fell open. A bead of saliva grew at the corner of his mouth.
Fritz jerked to attention at the sound.
“It is 8:30 AM, Chemise Beauregard,” The Thing said. “Time for your porridge.”
Fritz frowned. “Maybe I don’t want porridge today. Maybe I don’t want to eat anything at all.”
“Chemise Beauregard, your body’s glycogen stores are nearly depleted from overnight fasting. Such an eventuality may be deleterious to your salubrity.”
“Try that again,” Fritz said. “In English this time.”
The Thing’s voice rose in pitch. “You need yum yums for your tum tum.”
Great. A machine with a sense of humor. “I hate you, robot.”
“Your complaint is noted, Chemise Beauregard. Also, my name is not robot. It is Helping Hans.”
“I’m never going to call you that.”
“But you must, Chemise Beauregard. It is my name.”
“And my name is Fritz.”
The Thing beeped. “I’m sorry, Chemise Beauregard, but the alteration of your appellation lies outside of your security permissions.”
Fritz’s bad eye twitched. “Fine. Then I’m calling you Floor Lamp.”
“Chemise Beauregard, please refer to me as Helping Hans.”
“Make me, Floor Lamp.”
“Enabling physical violence against humans lies outside of your security permissions.”
“Wait,” Fritz said. “You can enable that?”
“Discussion of a disabled skill tree lies outside of your security permissions.”
“Well, what can you do?”
“I can assist in all instrumental and basic activities of daily living such as hygiene, shopping and meal preparation. For example, it is five minutes beyond your scheduled dose of porridge. Shall I prepare it for you?”
Fritz’s stomach grumbled, but he considered starving himself just to piss the robot off. “Fine,” he said after deciding he was getting a bit too old for that sort of thing. “Make me some porridge. Get your rocks off.”
“I do not understand your idiom,” Floor Lamp said, “but I will prepare your porridge.”
Fritz watched the robot stagger into the kitchen and get to work, wondering why the engineers had given it rickety legs instead of caterpillar tracks or something more stable. Purely to aggravate, no doubt.
“Not that one,” he said as Floor Lamp withdrew an open box of macadamia milk from the fridge with its soft, lifelike arms. “The goat milk.” Real milk was one of the last pleasures that remained to him.
The robot hesitated for a moment, no doubt referring to a labyrinth of security permissions.
“Of course, Chemise Beauregard,” it said at last.
“There’s only the two of us here,” Fritz said as it swapped the milks. “You don’t have to use my name every time you talk to me.”
“I’m sorry, Chemise Beauregard,” it said, “but modifying—”
“Shut up,” Fritz said.
Surprisingly, it did.
In welcome silence, Fritz watched as Floor Lamp poured the milk into a saucepan and cranked on the inductor beneath it.
“You’ve got it set too hot,” he said, relying on his ears since his chair was too short to afford a view into the pan. “You’ll scald it.”
“That is my objective, Chemise Beauregard.”
“What? Why? You’ll ruin it, you idiot!”
“All animal products must be heated to eighty-five degrees centigrade in order to render them safe for human consumption.”
Fritz’s jaw tightened. “Don’t ever cook me a steak…”
“Steak and all red meat lie beyond your dietary restrictions as recommended by—”
Before long, the roiling milk took on the unpleasant aroma of charred dust.
“You’re burning it,” Fritz said in resignation.
Floor Lamp dipped one of its gross little hands into the pan. “My sensors do not detect combustion,” it said.
“Use your nose. Can’t you smell that? And get your damn hands out of my food.”
“My scent detection is limited to that which is deemed dangerous to humans.”
“Well, you’re in danger of scorching this human’s expensive goat milk.”
Finally, when it deemed it appropriate and not a millisecond before, the robot killed the heat and stirred in two scoops of amaranth, forming an unappealing and gelatinous mess that found its way in front of Fritz at the table.
“I’m not eating this,” Fritz said, eyeing the black flecks that dotted the surface of the mound. “It’s burnt.”
“All animal products must be heated to eighty-five—”
“Get the milk carton,” Fritz said.
Floor Lamp complied.
“Now read it. Right there, in big letters. Pasteurized. It’s already been heated to a safe temperature, and by machines that actually recognize what burnt is.”
The robot stuck its fist into the center of the bowl. “This meal is fit for human consumption,” it declared.
“Not if I can’t choke it down.”
“You must eat, Chemise Beauregard.”
“Then cook it again. Correctly. And put in some vanilla or syrup or something, damn you.”
“Added sugar is—”
“Blueberries. There are blueberries in the fridge. Fruit. Healthy fruit. Now shut up and cook.”
“A second preparation will exhaust the supply of animal milk.”
“I don’t care. Just do it.”
Ten minutes later, a fresh bowl of porridge—free of black flecks and covered in blueberries—appeared in front of him. Surprisingly, it looked better than even what the real Chemise could make.
Fritz dipped a spoon with a shaky arm and struggled to get a scoop that contained several berries. The porridge gyrated on the utensil as he brought it to his mouth. Then, with the characteristic jerk of a failing nervous system, it threw itself onto the table.
“Chemise Beauregard, I am authorized to assist you in feeding.”
Fritz’s nostrils flared. “Babies get fed,” he said. “Men eat. Even old men like myself.”
He squeezed the spoon tighter, which only aggravated the shaking. Dismissing this feedback, he stabbed the quivering gruel and exhumed a sunken berry. Bracing his elbow against the table, he turned the spoon toward his mouth. It wavered in front of him. He tried to time its movements. Then, he lunged for it.
Scarcely had the mush crossed his lips, when its rancid flavors triggered his gag reflex. His throat tightened, his tongue spasmed, and the food found its way right back into his bowl.
“For the love of Job,” he said, scraping his tongue with the napkin Floor Lamp had tucked into his collar without asking. “The milk’s gone off.”
“Chemise Beauregard, where are you going?”
Fritz had grabbed his sun-bleached Panamanian walking hat, slapped it on his head and directed his mobility chair to the door.
“Out,” he said.
“‘Out’ is not a sufficient destination,” Floor Lamp said.
“I’m going to the market for some more milk, Warden.”
“Exiting the apartment is inadvisable.”
“You want me to eat, right? The only way that’s happening is if we get some more goat milk.”
Floor Lamp hesitated, its display changing to a stylized clock face for an instant before reverting to an annoying smile.
“Chemise Beauregard, we will go to the market together.”
“No,” Fritz said. “You will stay here. I will go to the market alone.”
Floor Lamp blew past him with an unexpected burst of speed, blocking the way.
“Such an action lies outside of your security permissions,” it said.
“Get out of the way.”
“I am afraid I cannot.”
Fritz sighed. Was this what his life had come to? Hated by his wife, abandoned by Chemise, and now under the thumb of a glorified toaster? He might not have much, but he would have his goat milk, even if it took his last shred of dignity to get it.
“Fine,” he said. “We go to the market together. But I’m wearing a sweater.”
It was a sunny day, kissed by an invigorating breeze and hovering at a warm twenty-five degrees. Asexual pine trees free of dangerous cones shaded the nonskid sidewalk from the gentle heat of the morning sun. A projected billboard on the windowless facade opposite broadcast the slogan, “Better Late than Dead” to all who happened by.
Fritz rolled along the sidewalk in front of a staggering Floor Lamp, hugging the sturdy, spindled railing that segregated pedestrians from street traffic. On the other side of it, lanes of autonomous taxicabs of various lengths and capacities ambled along the inductive tarmac.
A chubby man, mirroring at about thirty and sporting a black guayabera stained in condiments of various vintages, shook his head in disgust as he passed. Fritz’s gaze dropped to the coated sidewalk. He hated going outside. Back in the flat, and especially with Chemise, he could almost forget how revolting the rest of the world found him and his kind, but all that ended when he crossed its threshold.
A bulky robot tasked with clearing any wayward pine needles approached. Fritz skirted the creeping machine, nearly bumping into an agitated constable obscured on the other side.
“You know better than to run in public,” she was saying to a male model hunched over in front of her. “Do you have any idea how bad a closed head injury can be? One fall from a standing position and you’re dead. Forever.”
Fritz and Floor Lamp continued on until they were stopped by a nearby intersection. Retractable concrete posts lined the corner in front of them, preventing any further movement until the signal changed. In the meantime, Fritz found entertainment in an impatient goddess with an elaborate hairstyle simultaneously mashing the pedestrian crossing button and berating a robotic facsimile of a Galapagos tortoise. Then the bell sounded and two rows of posts emerged from the tarmac in front of them, framing the crosswalk and stopping traffic onto the main avenue.
Fritz glanced at an empty taxicab slowing to a halt at the posts, annoyed. Despite being nearly flush to the street to avoid a tripping hazard—and therefore accessible to his chair—the seats were packed too tight to allow him entry.
There were no provisions for the infirm in this perfect society. People didn’t age. Other than the two and a half percent that fell victim to untimely accidents, they didn’t die either. Unless they were resistant to the treatment, like him. Then they were alone, separate and unequal. Quasimodo cowering in the bell tower. Repulsive visitors and harsh reminders of the legacy of the once indelible genocide of an inescapable death.
And if one of those perfect people should break a leg or suffer an unsightly burn? Sequestration until they were presentable. Like Chemise.
The posts lining the corner retracted and Fritz rolled across the street with Floor Lamp. He eased over the drainage grate that rendered unsafe curbs obsolete and reached the sidewalk on the other side.
He felt the eyes on him. He knew what they were thinking. That he had no business outside. That he should wait for oblivion in a dark, discrete corner well out of sight of the respectable.
Too bad. For the most part, they were all old, both he and these bespoke images of a vain and shallow god, but only he had grasped the mantle of debilitation and plumbed its secrets. Wisdom like that could only be purchased in fucks; he’d given them all to the cause.
Further down the road, a rare yet instantly familiar sound forced a smile onto his pinched lips.
In a world of enduring life, there was little need for propagation—only one in twenty-five couples were granted such permission. He and Erma never even had a chance at such a chance. His intolerance of the treatment was genetic, passed down by his father in a reckless illegal conception before his parents had aged apart. Fritz would never have done something so selfish. When weighing the shame of a mortal life against the cautious vanity of immortality, the only ethical choice was sterilization.
Still, kids had a certain vestigial pull on him.
Up ahead, cutting between the cautious immortals going about their daily routines, were two of them. Even more miraculously, they were identical twins. Girls.
Fritz caught flashes of them through the crowd. Matching navy blue school jumpsuits trimmed in fluorescent safety stripes. Padded helmets lining flushed faces. Dirty hands and missing teeth. If childhood could be distilled to its essence, these two would be the visual representation of it.
As he watched, a pair of hands grabbed the kids by their collars, jerking them toward an alcove and out of the way of foot traffic. The violence of it startled Fritz, so he peered into the alcove as a concerned citizen. An angry parent knelt between the twins, pointing.
Fritz followed the index finger to a pair of maintenance robots dismantling a section of mangled, vandalized railing and instantly understood. There would be nothing stopping the twins from running onto the tarmac. Sure, the autonomous vehicles were programmed to avoid human casualties in such a case, but the fear of possibility remained.
As he rolled past the kids, Fritz thought back to his own youth on the farm and all the dangerous encounters that could’ve gone bad, but instead shaped him into the rich and dynamic character he had once been. Suddenly, he felt like encouraging the kids to run into the street—for their own good, of course.
But it wasn’t his place. He’d missed any opportunity at that, thanks to the selfish choices of his parents. Of course, if they hadn’t made those choices, he wouldn’t be alive to have kids anyway, but at least then he wouldn’t know what he was missing.
Fritz glanced up at Floor Lamp, staggering like a drunken idiot beside him, a facetious and condescending smile plastered across its digital display.
“Wipe that stupid look off your face,” he said.
The grin dissolved into the dark background without protest.
Fritz frowned. He was turning into Erma.
A smirking robot greeted them inside the market.
“Happy, happy,” it said, motioning to an antiseptic gel dispenser on the pole beside it. “Washy, washy.”
Fritz immediately hated it.
“No thanks,” he said as Floor Lamp greased up its eerie arms with the stuff. “It hurts the cracks in my hands.”
“But you must, sir,” the robot greeter said. “It is store policy.”
Fritz wasn’t about to argue with another machine. He tried to push past it.
The greeter blocked his way. “Happy, happy. Washy washy.”
“That’s not going to stop me,” Fritz said. “And you can’t touch me, robot. It’s not in your programming.”
“That’s correct,” a deep voice said from behind the machine. It belonged to a burly man, mirroring at a ripped and mature thirty-five. “If it was, I’d be out of a job. Now wash up, old man.”
Fritz sighed and took some gel from Floor Lamp. It burned. Then he made to pass the bouncer.
“Not so fast,” the burly man said, gripping his shoulder. “You’re looking a little pekid, Gramps. I think you should wear a mask.” He produced a crumpled surgical mask from a pocket and strapped it to Fritz’s sneering face. “There we are.”
“And thank you for choosing Bountiful Mercado, your friendly neighborhood food store,” the greeter added.
Fritz grumbled and rolled deeper into the store. The mask was hot and stifling, but he tried not to pay attention to it.
“Today’s weather forecast is sunny,” a prerecorded broadcast said over the public address speaker. “Make sure to visit our pharmacy for a free skin cancer screening and premium mutagen detox. Don’t let melanoma and its costly repair sneak up on your family.”
They made their way through the produce section en route to the milk, passing the bins of apricots (danger: contains pits) and pineapple (caution: peel before serving).
“Telomeres getting shorter?” The PA rabble-rouser asked. “How can you tell for sure? Anything can happen if you stop being vigilant. Come in for a complimentary scan.”
Fritz surveyed the cold case of dairy products and analogs, heavy on the analogs. There was an obvious gap in the space of the shelf reserved for fresh goat milk. They had a few cartons of cow milk, but it had defeated his digestive tract in a war of attrition long ago.
Instead, and after much grumbling, Fritz settled on a box of shelf stable, ultra pasteurized goat milk next to the peanut butter (warning: may contain peanuts).
The voice on the PA droned on. “Telomere scanning has been linked to blindness in rats. Is your family next? Visit our litigation kiosk to discuss possible compensation and set your mind at ease.”
Fritz paid for the milk with his bank card, much to the nostalgic delight of the bouncer, and made for the door.
As he and Floor Lamp exited the store, the voice on the PA was still blathering away.
“Frivolous lawsuits are clogging up the justice system. Will it be there when you need it? How can you know for sure?”
Fritz bounced along as fast as his sluggish jalopy would take him, not caring about anything other than getting the milk home.
“Hey, no speeding,” a fat hedonist in a muumuu said with a chuckle and a grin as she waddled past.
Fritz paid her no mind. He kept a hard grip on the box in his lap. Floor Lamp limped along beside him.
A tanned man with a round head and sunken eyes, handsome against all odds, ogled the pair of them.
“You two racing?” he asked, looking around to see if anyone would join him in the joke. “My money’s on the robot.”
But he didn’t matter. Neither did the approaching gap in the safety railing. Or the twins.
At least until one of them parted the crowd, bumbling into Fritz. She hit hard, smashing against his milk hand and knocking the box free. It fell to one side, splitting at a weak seam and washing across the textured sidewalk. The girl fell the other way, landing on her backside. She stared up at him for a long second as if offended and then disappeared back into the sea of meticulous people, goat milk dripping from her cuff.
“Oopsie,” Floor Lamp said. “Shall we return to Bountiful Mercado for a replacement?”
Fritz slumped forward in his chair. All that work—to get the milk, to be proactive, to impact his circumstances—wasted. “I’m tired,” he said at last. “You go. I’ll wait here.”
“Patient abandonment lies outside of your security—”
“If you make me go with you, I’m going to have a heart attack or something. You can’t endanger a human life, so you have to leave me here and do it yourself.”
Floor Lamp placed a finger against Fritz’s chest. “Your heart is running within norms.”
Fritz bit his bottom lip. “But I’m so hungry,” he said at last, playacting a wobble. “I might pass out without my porridge…”
The clock appeared on Floor Lamp’s display. “Pull to the railing and wait right here. I shall return in haste.” And then it was gone.
Fritz closed his eyes. He didn’t move to the railing. He stayed where he was, letting the noise of the city and the throng wash over him. He removed himself from the scene. He was an ear, a curious ghost—present, but not.
“Get out of the way, you old fossil,” somebody said, shattering the illusion.
Fritz opened his eyes as the culprit, a scowling man in tangerine jodhpurs, stormed past with a facsimile of a miniature pony. Behind them stood the dangerous gap in the railing.
Two maintenance robots were working the mangled segment back into shape, leaving just enough room for a determined person to push through and onto the tarmac. They couldn’t restrain a human with force—not even if a life was in jeopardy.
Throwing oneself into traffic was the easy part, Fritz reasoned. The hard part was successfully getting hit. Taxicabs drove staggered across the lanes, leaving room to swerve if they couldn’t brake in time. And if congestion should force them abreast, they would crash into their brethren before colliding with an unprotected pedestrian, betting on their innate safety measures to protect their passengers. The AI utilized a complex algorithm to mitigate human fatalities in any given situation.
Fritz glanced at the passing taxicabs. He’d need to find a way to make plowing into him the least worst option or it wouldn’t work.
A sudden, urgent hiss caught his attention. One of the twins was standing in front of him, baring her teeth and brandishing an accusatory index finger.
“Wait,” Fritz shouted as she turned to run back into the crowd.
She spun to face him, looking positively feral.
“Are you bored?” he asked.
The girl cocked her head.
“I know something cool we can do. And destructive.”
She considered this. Then she ripped the Panama hat from his head and scrambled back into the crowd.
“Hey! Stop her!” he shouted, looking for a sympathetic eye in the crowd. He couldn’t find one. Nobody gave a shit.
Fritz closed his eyes. What had been a playful lark moments before coalesced into something much more solid. But he couldn’t do it alone. If he rolled onto the tarmac by himself, it wouldn’t cause much more than a commotion. And he’d always hated being the cause of a commotion. Better to just go home, eat his insipid robot porridge, and wait for Erma to return and whittle away at his traces of self-worth.
He felt an impatient presence and opened his eyes to the source. Both twins stared at him expectantly.
“Mister,” the one with the milk-soaked cuff said. “What’s this I hear about something cool?”
The corner of Fritz’s mouth edged up into a half smile. He forgot about the hat. “Wanna cause a car crash?” he asked.
The feral one’s face brightened.
“That sounds dangerous,” the other one said, adjusting her padded helmet.
“It’s perfectly safe.”
“How do we do it?” the feral one asked.
“Easy. Just run into the street here.”
The cautious one peered through the gap. “I don’t want to be in a car crash,” she said.
“You won’t,” Fritz replied. “They’ll swerve out of your way and crash into each other. They have an algorithm, you know.
“We know,” the twins said.
“So will you do it?”
“Yes!” the feral one said and then broke for the gap.
“Wait!” the other one shouted, bounding after her sister.
Fritz didn’t have time to think. He jammed his controls forward and followed.
The kids scrambled through the gap and across the tarmac to the inner lane, bounded on the far side by the center divider.
Fritz heard panicked shrieks from the crowd of pedestrians as he bumped over the drainage grate and into the outer lane. He turned his head and stared straight into a barreling taxicab.
The calculus of the algorithm was basic enough to be done in his head. Two immortal children were more important than one mortal invalid. The taxicab couldn’t crash into the center divider without risking the kids. It couldn’t plow into the compromised railing without risking those on the sidewalk. There was no time to stop. The only choice was to run him down.
His smirk morphed into a sneer as he took one last look at all the beautiful people surrounding him. He’d show those chickenshits the abiding freedom of fearlessness. He’d show them how no one was well and truly a man until they died like one. He’d show them—
The oncoming taxicab’s brakes squealed as it veered into the inner lane and obliterated the twins.
Fritz’s jaw dropped. One little body flew into the air, headless, twisting over the center divider before splintering the front windshield of an empty vehicle speeding in the opposite direction. The other one disappeared into the wheel well of the taxicab that struck her and was scoured to paste.
A scream erupted from the sea of traumatized onlookers and Fritz recognized the scolding parent of the twins from earlier.
“What have you done?” the parent shrieked, pressing against the railing, hesitant to travel beyond.
Showering sparks drew Fritz’s eyes back to the carnage. Metal and electricity spewed from the guts of the wheel well surrounding the smeared body. He couldn’t find his words.
“Do you have any idea how expensive those were?”
Fritz searched the street until he found the decapitated head. There was no blood, only murky fluid pooling at the base of the neck. Instead of bones and flesh, tubes and jelly protruded from the separation. He looked back at the wheel well. The sparking mess wasn’t coming from it, but rather the pulverized appliance mashed inside.
They weren’t kids at all, just more god damn robots.
All eyes were on him now. He had made a commotion. And he was in big trouble. So, naturally, he played the only card he had left.
“Ma na rama la bronk,” he shouted, slurring the sounds. He cocked his head to one side and set an arm rigid. His foot turned in. He let a little drool slip down his chin. “Bar rar lemur.”
A knowing murmur spread through the crowd. His laughable performance had passed as some vague affliction of the mortal and elderly. They couldn’t prosecute the infirm.
“Who’s going to pay for this?” the parent asked.
Fritz realized he was asking Floor Lamp, who had reappeared beside him with a replacement box of goat milk.
“I do not believe Chemise Beauregard has sustained any additional damage,” the robot said. “There will be nothing for you to pay for.”
“Me? Your idiot has cost me two brand-new facsimiles!”
A pair of constables emerged from the crowd.
“What’s going on here?” one of them asked. Fritz recognized her as the one he had nearly bumped into earlier.
“That thing killed my children,” the man said, pointing at Fritz.
“Gaga boba predo,” Fritz said.
The officers frowned and turned their attention to the crash site. “They don’t look human to me, Sir.”
“Human, no. But we think of them as our children.”
“Well the law doesn’t. If these bots suddenly got rights, Jenkins here would have to start paying for sex all over again.”
Her partner shrugged.
She raised her hand and silenced the man.
“What’s your patient’s name, bot?” she asked Floor Lamp.
The constable mulled it over. “Sounds like a woman’s name,” she said.
Her partner adjusted his crotch and studied Fritz. “Could be a woman,” he said. “Geriats all look alike to me. Doesn’t help that they cut their hair short. Imagine it down to her shoulders.”
The constable brightened. “Oh yeah. I see it now.” After another glance over the scene, she turned to Floor Lamp.
“All right, bot. Take Miss Beauregard home. She shouldn’t be outside anyway.”
The robot complied.
“Chemise Beauregard, shall I open the door?”
Floor Lamp stood in front of the flat, goat milk in hand.
Fritz glanced at the box, wondering why he didn’t feel jubilant. He’d completed his goal, braving the hostile outside world in the name of breakfast and dignity, but he felt nothing. In fact, he found he no longer had any interest in the milk whatsoever. What he did have an interest in, however, was the door across the hall. Chemise’s door.
“Come with me,” Fritz said to Floor Lamp, heading over.
He braced one arm with the other and knocked. That is to say, he tried to knock. His frail arm managed some combination of bump and scrape, certainly nothing loud enough to be heard inside.
Reluctantly, he turned to Floor Lamp for help.
“Knock on the door.”
The robot complied.
Something rustled inside the flat, but the door didn’t budge.
“Open up, Chemise,” he said. “It’s just Fritz.”
After a brief hesitation, a youthful voice on the other side of the door asked, “Are you alone?”
“Yes. Well, no. I’ve got The Thing with me.”
“Hold on a second.”
That second rolled into a minute and then more as Fritz and Floor Lamp waited. Indecipherable noises emanated from inside.
Finally, the door opened a crack. Chemise, or what he assumed was Chemise, stood on the other side, her face shrouded in a craft project of wrapping paper and adhesive tape. Two eyes, one still tinged red from her accident, peeked through irregular holes. Despite the inviting heat emanating from within her flat, she wore a concealing light jacket and sweatpants.
“Come in, quick,” she said. “Someone important might see.”
Fritz and Floor Lamp hurried inside. As soon as they had cleared the threshold, she slammed the door behind them and set both latches.
“What are you wearing?” Fritz asked, eyeing the pattern of starfish on her paper mask.
She turned away from him. “I’m hideous.”
“I look much worse, I’m sure.”
“You don’t count.” She glanced at Floor Lamp. “But it does.”
Fritz’s eye twitched. “You’re embarrassed of what a robot might think about you?”
“They record everything. There’s no telling what might get out.”
“Then shut it down.”
Still at the door, Chemise uttered a lengthy alphanumeric key. Floor Lamp’s display darkened and its frame sagged forward into a balanced and neutral position. Rigid limbs relaxed. The milk tumbled to the ground. Fritz gasped, but the box held intact.
“What was that sound?” Chemise asked, her view blocked by the robot’s frame.
“It dropped something it was carrying when it shut down.”
“No,” Fritz said, trying to play it off. “Just some milk.”
“Milk I can handle,” she said. “I still have a fridge at least. For now. Had to sell most of the other furniture. Beauty costs, you know, especially when you’re not working.”
Fritz looked around the flat. It was a studio, the smallest floorplan in the building, and what furniture it once had was conspicuously missing. The bed was a mattress on the floor, the former hanging artwork reduced to discolored shadows on the walls. Luckily, Fritz had brought his own chair.
“Much better,” Chemise said.
He turned his attention back to her and forgot all about the furniture.
The concealing pants and jacket were mounded at her feet, replaced by a red tank top and clinging athletic shorts that exposed the blossoming body beneath. The paper mask was gone. Fritz barely noticed the wrist brace she wore or the superficial bruises and abrasions on her face as he got lost in the iridescent algae of her green eyes and contrasting black hair, blued by the warmth of the lighting. She was the spitting image of his high school sweetheart, Eugénie. Or did Eugénie have blonde hair? He couldn’t remember, but he knew that they had perfection in common.
“You’re staring at me,” she said.
“Sorry about that.”
“Is it my face?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Er… I mean your face is beautiful.”
A smile. “And you’re blind, old man.”
“Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Back to business. “So what did you want, anyway?”
Fritz swallowed. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. All he’d known was a desperation to see her. He pointed his chin at Floor Lamp, going with the first idea that popped into his head.
“This piece of junk won’t stop calling me Chemise Beauregard and it’s driving me nuts.”
She stifled a giggle and walked over to the machine. “What do you expect from a subletted RehaBot?” she asked, caressing its metal. “It’s easy to change the chart beneath the patient’s name, but the name itself is pretty much hardwired into the cortex. It’s like the security permissions—if you want to change those, you’ll need a whole new cortex and then you might as well buy your own custom job.”
“Don’t even start about the security permissions,” he said. “Damn thing won’t stop telling me about them.”
She nodded. “Anyway, I can’t change the cortex, but I can change how the voice emulator treats the signals from the cortex. Does that make sense to you?”
“Ish.” He noticed his diction changing, reverting back to that of his teenage years. It happened whenever he spent time with Eugén—with Chemise.
“It’ll cost you though,” she said, bending over in front of him to snatch up the milk. As if by reflex, he looked down her shirt, at the tops of shadowy breasts young and arrogant enough to stay in place without the crutch of a bra. He remembered breasts like that. He’d first seen them in Prentice DeMaio’s boathouse at the tail end of a bush party in the tenth grade. Only these weren’t Eugénie’s. They belonged to Chemise. And she wasn’t sixteen, but ninety-five.
Fritz was lost. Was he a lascivious old man salivating over a nubile teenager or a married man lusting for a peer? Either way, he was sad and alone and likely unable to properly process his longing.
Chemise stood back up.
“I’ll pay you whatever you want,” he said.
And if that wasn’t enough to keep her young and in her flat, he’d pay her more. She’d probably sleep with him for money. She was desperate. It could be like sleeping with Eugénie all over again. For a minute, maybe he could forget everything. Maybe that’s all he needed. His wife didn’t matter. The Erma he’d fallen in love with was dead, replaced by the frivolous hussy that shared his flat.
But he couldn’t do that to Chemise. Besides, he couldn’t even get it up. He was a dirty old man trying to relive past glories. He should be ashamed of himself.
She smiled. It hurt to watch. “In that case, let me put this milk away and see what I can do.”
It was going to take Chemise a while to sort things out with Floor Lamp, so Fritz looked around the flat for some way to busy himself. Open
The curtains were drawn, no doubt to defend against the nonexistent prying eyes that might be hovering outside the window, but a small crack of sunshine snuck through where the fabric met. The rest of the room was illuminated by soft lighting that evened out any skin imperfections. Even the backs of Fritz’s ancient, liver-spotted hands took the hint.
An open cardboard box of vintage paper books by the window piqued his interest and he snatched up the one on top. It was an old hardcover on child rearing, from back when that was still a big thing. He had no idea why Chemise would have it. Her body mirrored sixteen, but her eggs were ninety-five and had long since aged beyond viability. Even frozen, they were dust. She was as likely to have kids as he was.
He glanced over at her. She was hard at work, chewing on a strand of her glorious ebon hair in concentration. Maybe the idea of a baby filled her emptiness, like remembering Eugénie filled his. Maybe she flipped through the pages in the dark, lonely nights of insomnia, like he flipped through memories of that boathouse.
“All those dust-catchers you’re leafing through are for sale, by the way,” she said. “A former client gave them to me and I’m looking to turn them into cash.”
Or maybe not.
He opened the front cover to a grayscale image of a sleeping infant, content in its mother’s loving embrace. Smiling despite himself, he licked a finger and turned the first page. His eyes may not have been able to resolve the blurry words, but the pictures would be more than enough.
“I can hear your stomach over here,” Chemise said.
Fritz snapped to alertness and sucked the spit back into his mouth. He hadn’t even noticed his hunger, so engrossed was he in a teething pictorial.
“I’m pretty much done here,” she said. “Just need to wait a few minutes for the boot to complete. Why don’t we get you something to eat, Fritz?”
He stiffened. She’d called him Fritz. Not Old Man or Gramps, but Fritz.
His guts tingled. Odd that such a trivial thing could raise his spirits so.
“Okay,” he said.
She wiped her palms on the back of her flattering shorts as she walked into the tiny kitchen. “I don’t have any amaranth, but I have some grits…”
Fritz hated grits, but he’d eat lead filings if it meant he could spend more time with her. Hell, he’d drink bleach if he could just fill in for her palms for a while.
“Sounds great, Génie.” he said.
Chemise cocked her head, but then shrugged it off.
“We can use your milk,” she said.
He put down the book and rolled over to the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen from the rest of the studio. She was a whirlwind on the other side, bending and pivoting and generally taking her lithe body for granted. He felt it in his chest.
Like everyone else around, she was painfully attractive. Everyone but him, that is. He was an old man, a promise unfulfilled and nearly forgotten. And she wasn’t Génie, but Chemise. Why did their names have to be so similar? Why did they have to look so alike?
This modern world was ridiculous. Old people playing teenager. Immortals afraid of apricot pits and pineapples. Open hostility to the less fortunate. It wasn’t right.
He shook his head. It may not have been right, but it was the world they had created for themselves. Although it did have its perks, he thought, looking Chemise up and down. It had only been a couple of days, but he had sure missed her.
“How long until you make your reemergence to society?” he asked as she heated the milk.
“Should be a week or two for the cuts to heal. Then another month for the scar treatment and collagen synthesis, which is about when my wrist should be back to normal.”
Fritz listened to the milk bubble away on the stovetop, wondering why she wasn’t stirring it.
“They say the redness in my eye should resolve on its own,” she continued, “but I don’t know. What do you think?”
He thought she should put the grits in before the milk scorched, but he didn’t say that. She was so beautiful and youthful and innocent and he didn’t want to spoil it with his old man grumpiness.
“I think you could go out right now,” he said.
She turned to face him, horror plastered across her face. “Absolutely not,” she said, then stepped to a hanging mirror on one side of the kitchen, abandoning the stove.
Fritz cringed. “I bet you make some mean grits,” he said, hoping she would get the hint.
She didn’t, instead pulling at her lower eyelid and inspecting the result.
“Even if this is redness clears up, I think I’m gonna get my sclera whitened…”
The milk was starting to burn. He could smell it.
She tugged at the corner of an eye. “I’m getting a wrinkle!” she said, alarmed. “Fritz. Look at this. I’m getting a wrinkle.” She turned from the mirror and leaned over the breakfast bar to show off her find. Her firm breasts pushed against the countertop, opening the neckline of her tank top and inviting him into its shadows. He fought the urge to adjust his bifocals.
“I don’t see any wrinkles,” he said.
“Then you’re blind, old man. They’re right there for anyone with decent eyes to see. I’m a hideous old crone.” She sighed. “One more thing I’ll have to find a way to pay for.”
“I don’t think you need to change a thing,” he said.
“Easy for you to say. You’re one giant wrinkle. What’s another crease to a raisin?”
Fritz frowned, feeling a crack in the fantasy.
“The milk is burning,” he said.
“Ack!” She yanked the spitting saucepan off the heat and inspected it. “It’ll be all right,” she said and then dumped in the grits.
No, it wouldn’t. Nothing would ever be all right again.
She took the grits off the stove way too soon, slapped it in a bowl and then dragged a sealed cardboard box over to sit on beside him. Using her legs as a makeshift table, she nestled the bowl between her thighs. He thought of Prentice DeMaio’s boathouse, to a time when he had been that bowl, and closed his eyes. He could feel her heart beating beside him. No. Make that his own heart, throbbing in his ears.
He reached for her hand.
“Here comes the taxicab,” she said in an overexcited tone.
His eyes jerked open to a spoonful of undercooked grits snaking toward him.
There was no time to react, so he opened his mouth and took it.
“Oopsie,” she said. She’d misjudged the entry and smeared a glob of crunchy grits onto his lower lip. Before he could suck it into his mouth, she scraped it with the spoon and did it for him. Like he was a fucking baby.
But she had her other hand pressed against his knee, so he didn’t say a word. Instead, he grabbed the hand.
She gave him a patronizing smile and pulled it free, but not without a gentle, condescending pat.
“Beep beep,” she said, bringing forward another spoonful. “Better let it into the garage. It’s time to check the tire pressure.”
It was demeaning as hell, but she was beautiful and he was hungry. He took the bite and worked the pulverized corn with his stained teeth. They called it grits for a reason.
He took her hand again. He deserved at least that much after putting up with this indignity.
She rubbed the liver spots on the back of his hand with a pristine thumb. A warmth radiated through his body as she played with a squirmy vein. The heartbeat in his ears quickened. Then she shuddered and tore her hand free in disgust.
He frowned. She wasn’t supposed to pull free. She was supposed to look at him like he was a man. She was supposed to want him. To understand him without words. Like she had at the boathouse.
He seized her hand.
“Stop it!” she said, ripping free. “I don’t want to touch that rough old thing. It hurts.”
He scowled at her, snapping back to reality. “We’re the same age,” he said. “We’re both ninety-five.”
She leapt to her feet. “I’m sixteen years old,” she said, holding her head high. “I’ll always be sixteen years old. A thousand years after you’re dead, I’ll still be sixteen years old.”
He reached for her, longing to caress her soft skin. “Let me hold you,” he said. “Please. Just for a minute. I want to feel young too. It’s not fair. Please. I don’t want to be alone. Help me forget. Just for a minute.”
Chemise stood just out of reach, her arms crossed.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” she said.
“Please. I’ll pay you.”
“I’m not a whore,” she said. “Especially for a thing like you.”
“No. Not sex. Just a hug. I just want a hug. I’ll pay. Whatever you want.”
“Hug your robot.”
As if on cue, Floor Lamp chimed on the other side of the room.
“There,” she said. “He’s booted.”
Chemise stepped into her sweatpants and hid her inviting breasts within the jacket. Then she put on the paper mask, banishing that blue-black hair and those algal eyes to a place well beyond Fritz’s reach.
Floor Lamp came to life at her touch.
“Hello, Frederitz,” it said.
As Fritz came over, Chemise backed away.
He should’ve just admired her from afar. He should’ve stayed a compliant baby. Now those breasts were gone to him forever. And so was the brain connected to them. A patronizing contact was better than no contact at all.
“Have this thing do a diagnostic when you get home,” she said. “And say hello to your wife for me.”
Fritz’s gaze dropped to the ground. He should’ve just faked a stroke. That would’ve fixed everything.
“Let’s go, Floor Lamp,” he said.
“Frederitz, my preferred appellation is Helping Hans.”
He turned to Chemise. “You couldn’t have fixed that?”
She crossed her arms again. “You’re lucky I didn’t program it to molest you in your sleep. Creep.”
Fritz slumped in his chair and followed Floor Lamp out of the little studio and back to his own door. His head was so heavy. He couldn’t find the strength to hold it up.
“Hey,” Chemise called out across the hall.
Fritz spun to face her, smiling and suddenly enervated. She’d forgiven him. He could go back to being her compliant baby.
She leaned from her doorway, holding his goat milk by three distasteful fingers.
“Take this liquid flesh with you,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
The smile fell from Fritz’s face and he nodded to the robot, who retrieved the box.
When she was gone, they reentered Fritz’s flat. It was cold and sparse and smelled of deionized water.
“Frederitz,” Floor Lamp said. “Shall I make you some porridge?”
“No. Just put that away. We need to do your diagnostic.”
“The most efficient test requires a blank sheet of paper,” it said as it placed the milk in the fridge. “Do you have this?”
“In my bedroom.”
Fritz led the way down the sterile corridor and into the warm, complex fug of home.
“On the shelf,” he said, motioning to the bookcase.
Floor Lamp staggered over to it and withdrew a dilapidated paperback.
“What is this?” it asked.
“You’ve never seen a book before?”
“I have. But the rules of etiquette and conversation dictate a facetious ignorance on my part.”
“You certainly talk like a bookworm,” Fritz said.
Floor Lamp scanned the cover. “The Caves of Steel,” it said. “What is it about?”
“I’m sure you already know.”
“The recollection of facts is healthy for an aging human brain.”
Fritz picked a piece of hard cornmeal from his teeth. “It’s about a man and a robot that team up to solve a crime.”
“That sounds highly improbable. Do you read it often?”
“Nah. My eyes don’t get along with the small text.”
“I would be happy to read it to you, Frederitz.”
“Just do the diagnostic. Paper is to your left.”
Floor Lamp returned the book and carried a piece of yellowed paper to the dusty reading table nestled against the shelves. It pressed a pinky finger against the sheet and scrawled a measured, meticulous pattern of brown on the surface. Then it did the same thing with blue. And green. And a rainbow of colors.
When it was finished, it presented Fritz with an impressionistic sketch of a young ginger boy leaning against a dilapidated split rail fence beside a meandering creek.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It is you,” the robot replied.
Fritz squinted at the picture. “Do you mean the fence?”
“I mean the human.”
He shook his head. “Then you better whiten his hair, wrinkle his skin and collapse his weak little body into the grass.”
“It is not illustrative of your body, but you.”
“Well, I am my body. And my body is me.”
“Not so. One could take my cortex and place it in another body and I would still be Helping Hans.”
“There are thousands of Helping Hanses out there…”
“True. But I have a unique serial number. Attach my cortex to a smart toaster and I would still be 032-9471.”
“And trapped in a toaster.”
“But I wouldn’t be a toaster. I would be 032-9471.”
Fritz pursed his lips and then pointed to the picture. “So this is really how you see me?”
“This is how you are. And that is what I see.”
Fritz shook his head. “You know, Floor Lamp, you might just be my only true friend.”
“I am not programmed to emulate friendship, Frederitz.”
“And I’m not programmed to be a cliché, but here we are. I could kill you for making me one,” he said, smiling.
“Murder of Helping Hans lies outside of your security permissions. Might I suggest you allow me to read to you instead?”
“How do you feel about hugs?”
“They are acceptable, Frederitz.”
“Then come here, 032-9471. Why don’t we start with that?”
Brian Koukol lives on the Central Coast of California, where he somehow finds time to write between soaking up rays and eating his weight in avocados. This story, like all of his fiction, is written with voice recognition software on account of his lifelong nemesis, muscular dystrophy.
Visit his author website: http://www.briankoukol.com/