The man in the shadows turned his back and commanded his world to order.
Phil was used to walking this way home. He ignored the starry-eyed trancs and emaciated wire-heads that checked him out as he passed. They were harmless as long as you didn't look like prey. Phil was over the hump by now, but even in his graying years, a man his height and stature was not easily confused for prey. On top of his stature, his frayed overcoat and travel beaten shoes made it obvious that he was not a man with a lot to rob. So he walked with a confidence atypical for this part of town
At the intersection of 6th and Lincoln his journey was, not surprisingly, interrupted by a frantic teenager that bumped him from behind and then fell in a bundle on the ground. Phil stepped away from the unkempt kid and checked his pockets. Not that he was worried, he never kept his wallet there anyway, but he wanted to see if the kid had tried for it. His clothes were unmolested. The kid was as thin as bones. He glared up at Phil with that desperate look that was common to wire-heads and Phil guessed that the brat probably had sockets behind his ears or implanted in undetectable places under his fiery red shock of unkempt hair. Whatever the brat was running from, it wasn't his business.
Phil ignored the kid and made his way across the intersection to 7th Ave, where the old beat up Mecha whores worked the alleys, and runaway or discarded sims lined the dark hovels of burnt out tenements or served the people who lived in the hastily constructed shanty's that lined the back ways. He passed them by with a disinterest bred by familiarity, and turned onto a cleaner Commerce Ave where he stepped quickly by a store window.
Then he stopped.
Something had caught his eye. A screen. He stepped back and watched the images carefully. It wasn't the screen itself that interested him, he'd seen it everyday as he passed. He already had one almost as big at his apartment. It was what was on the screen that caught his attention. It was a news-ad for something that at first was only mildly interesting but then, as the program went on, became a major curiosity. By the time the announcer started giving details on how to acquire one of the featured items, it was quickly becoming an obsession.
Phil set off again, his mind racing. He walked quickly past the broken down cruiser that was always parked in front of his building, and dashed up the stairs to the second level where they at least tried to simulate some of the security procedures up-towners took for granted. It wasn't much but it made the tenants feel safer. At least the place didn't smell like piss, as did most of the neighborhood. He waited while the house cam examined his eyes. It was slow as usual, but eventually it made a mechanical grunt and slid the door open with a warm greeting.
He ignored the welcome and stepped quietly down the hall, hoping to get to his door before Dag popped into the hallway. He knew the idiot would be monitoring the house system, probably why the thing was so damned slow.
He made it to his door just as he heard Dag's door squeaking open down the hall. Phil slipped inside the apartment and shut his door quickly before the annoying neighbor had a chance to call his name. He waited momentarily, holding his breath, fearing for the sound of Dag's footfalls in the hallway. When he heard nothing, he let his breath out and relaxed against the door.
"Hey honey? What' cha got for me?" Angel bellowed gruffly from the back of the apartment. He could hear her whirring her way down the hall into the main room. Her sweet raspy voice, never failed to make him feel better. Even after all these years of trials and tribulations, after all his repeated failures, she'd never let her fatigue show in her voice. Phil didn't think he really deserved her.
"He-he-hey Honey," he replied. "G-got so-so-some... some maca-macadamia, and so-some.."
"Whoa slow down, lover," Angel said maneuvering her wheelchair around the corner. Her graying black hair was poking up like she had just awoken. Her wrinkled bed robes, wrapped loosely around her thin frame, supported that idea. "Slow down, baby, you know how you sound when..." she stopped to puff on a cigarette, and reached out for the bag. "...when you're in a hurry," she finished with the butt clenched in her teeth. She examined the contents of the bag, nodding. "Okok, mmmm... Macadamia Nuts, jerky, butter, medi-fresh, vitamins." She stopped then and raised an irritated eyebrow at her husband. "Where's my smokes?"
Phil shrugged and frowned. "You shu-shu-should quit, Angel. It's t-t-t-too expensi-si-sive anway."
"Non-issue baby," she said sternly. "Now, unless you want your Angel to get hurt trying to get her own smokes, I suggest you go and get them yourself," she said with that beaming eyebrow look that displayed her disappointment. "Like you were supposed to," she added.
Phil shrugged, donned a mischievous grin, and pulled the pack from his coat pocket. "I th-th-thought you mi-might give in th-th-this time."
Angel smiled a gentle reproach, and snatched the pack away. "You should know by now, babes, I never give in."
Phil whipped off his overcoat and squared his shoulders. "Well, th-th- that's something I wa-want to talk about," he said, tossing the coat over a table chair. He pulled the chair right up beside hers and sat down heavily. Angel raised an eyebrow at him, waiting for whatever it was he was up to now.
"L-l-let's have a ki-ki-id," he said after a dramatic pause.
Angel let the words go by her at first. A silent moment passed as Phil's suggestion sank in. Then she grimaced and shook her head. "Is that supposed to be funny, Phil; some kind of joke? What the hell are you..." she didn't finish. She sighed and leaned back into her chair, her gaze shifting to indistinguishable points in the room; suddenly removed, distant. Her thin, disabled body was now visually vulnerable, unprotected by her cocky attitude.
"N-n-no no noooo," he said soothingly, seeing the reluctant tear welling into the corner of her eye; realizing that he'd made a mistake by presenting his idea this way. He often made tactical errors like this. "L-l- listen, sc-sc-screw the CLA. W-w-we don't need a g-goddamn license," he said. Quickly, before his blunder would make her cry outright, he told her about what he'd seen on the screen in the window of Eddie's Salvage shop.
She listened raptly, as he struggled through the words. Her expression fluctuated as he spoke, changing from one of hesitance, to curiosity, to fascination... then to something he could not read at all. This final, unreadable expression stayed for moments as he waited anxiously for her reaction.
"Absolutely not!" she barked after an uncomfortable, suspenseful silence.
Rain fell and washed the street to a silver grey gloss under an overcast sky. A large, pretentiously stylistic building cast dark shadows over the street, engulfing also the statue that stood in the courtyard, its arms spread wide and hands fanned back like a bird awaiting a lifting breeze.
At the edge of the shadow a man sat alone in a small land cruiser. Absentmindedly, he watched the droplets fall over his windshield. His body was on automatic while he was lost in his thoughts. He pinched his chin for a while; adjusted his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. He squeezed the tip of his nose and pulled at an earlobe. Then he unconsciously repeated this process. His lips formed silent swears. He hadn't brought his umbrella. He hadn't expected rain. No one ever did. It came unannounced and left just as quickly.
He repeated his reasoning's, his rational, as he watched the downpour. He was silent only when he took note of someone walking to or from the building. What were their lives like; their reasons for being here?
That's what Jess had wanted to know from him the night before.
"Why are you doing this?" she'd asked... demanded.
Guest had shifted his weight in the couch, pressing back into the cushions. He set his gaze on the mist gathering outside their huge bay window as he pondered an appropriate answer. He was quiet for some time as he thought and to her credit she allowed him this silence. In a short time he knew that he wouldn't find a response that would satisfy her, so he only shrugged and lifted his glass to his lips.
"Oh? So that's it then? You don't have a reason," she asked. She was on the verge of yelling now, her calm façade deteriorating with each word. "You just intend to break up our peaceful household for the sake of some inexplicable whim?"
Inexplicable whim? Did she really know so little about him after all these years? He glanced at her quickly, not making eye contact. That would just piss her off more. She was going through the motions; hands on hips, the predictable look of irritated incredulity under the make-up plastered on her face. He looked away, admiring the horizon again. Not talking; Waiting for the moment.
"Guest! Don't you dare..." she stormed to the window and hit the dimmer. He sighed as the panoramic view darkened and then disappeared altogether. "Don't you dare ignore me!" she finished. "I have a right to know what the hell you think you are doing! We have been together for twenty-three years now, Guest! Twenty-three long and peaceful years and I cannot believe you intend to disrupt all that for some... "she waved her arms, as if trying to pull a word from the air around her, "... some... thing!"
He looked at her again, trying to appear appropriately reproached. He wasn't sure he was being successful. Her arms were crossed now. This was a good sign. She was on the verge of giving in. He could feel it. He lifted his eyebrows and took another sip of his brandy. He knew she hated that one.
"You're doing it again! The eyebrow thing! I know what you're up to but I am not playing this time Guest! The answer is no. No! You are not bringing that..." she stopped and paced a quick circle, huffing exasperated sighs. "What would you want one of those things for anyway? Is there something wrong with our life?"
He couldn't ignore this one. He shook his head slowly and cleared his throat.
"Is this one of those 'toy' things? You need to be the first on the block to have the newest gizmo?"
He was forced to roll his eyes at that one.
"Then what? What then? I am not enough for you? Your daughter? We're insufficient to meet your emotional needs? What is it?"
Guest shook his head in response. Mandy was grown up now. She be getting her own place soon enough, but that wasn't it. He started to nip at his brandy again, but instead put the glass on the coffee table and folded his arms in his lap. She was insisting on an explanation. Maybe she deserved one after all. He let her see that he was thinking. To her credit she waited for him again. How must he look to her, folded in this acquiescent pose? Like some overgrown kid trying to explain why his homework wasn't completed? The grey hadn't taken over, but it was creeping in, wasn't it? Maybe it was some kind of mid-life crisis, or perhaps some unresolved matter from his childhood. Maybe it was a bit of both.
He wanted to tell her about the time that his Father had taken him up north to see the ice caps; about how they'd rented a port-a-cabin and camped on one of the frozen ridges. He wanted to explain how they'd built a fire and sat up most of the night watching the stars that coated the skies like twinkling dust, and how Dad had told him about what is was like before the oceans had risen. He wanted to tell her about the time they had gone distance biking in the south and how the smell of orange blossoms still brings him back to that time, making him smile underneath his detached facade. Could he ever explain what it was like to learn how to ride, the exhilaration and fear as you struggled to balance; and the reassurance of Dad's footfalls right beside as you raced down the driveway? Could he tell her about the ritual of learning to hit the ball so it blasted out over second base and sent the outfielders dashing into the fence, or what it was like to hear Dad cheering you on as you raced around the bases; hero of the day? Could he ever explain how, even then, part of the excitement was in knowing that someday you would relive these precious moments with someone else... for someone else. He shrugged and smiled up at her, catching her eyes this time.
"Dad's gone now..." he started, feeling like a cheat for resorting to this. The funeral was only weeks gone by, still untouchable terrain; sanctuary for his inexplicable whim.
She moaned and placed her head in her hands. Getting a little grey there too. "Oh Guest..." she sighed, but to her credit didn't argue further.
"... and I always wanted a son," he finished.
And in the end perhaps it was really that simple. So he climbed out into the downpour and raced across the courtyard. "To hell with an umbrella" he muttered as he passed the Cybertronics statute, and then quickly wondered if perhaps it had heard him.
But something else had.
It walked slowly along the sidewalk that ran the length of the Cybertronics Outlet. It turned at the voice of the man who raced through the downpour and watched curiously as he disappeared into the huge sliding glass doorway.
The little machine turned its gaze back to the tall man who was holding its hand, leading it along the glistening wet pavement.
The tall man gazed back down at the smooth, perfectly human looking thing that walked beside him. "Careful," he said gesturing to a puddle just before them.
The Mecha stopped, eyed the gathering of water, then looked back up at the man and smiled its flat, disconnected smile. "Ok, Mr. Hartly."
The tall man pulled Jeffy close as they stepped around the puddle. The breeze shifted suddenly, causing the raindrops to fall at a different angle. He adjusted the umbrella so that the machine wouldn't get wet. The salesman had explained that the water would not damage it, that the sim could actually be submerged for long periods of time before it suffered any malfunction, but he wasn't taking chances. He couldn't really afford this thing as it was, and he definitely wasn't about to pay for something that he decided not to buy. But even in this short introductory stroll around the grounds, he had a feeling it wasn't going to happen that way. He'd explained that the pitch job wasn't really necessary. The new features, the EZ code imprinting, the new imprinter security commands and alert mode responses, were all just icing on the cake. He placed his arm around Jeffy's small synthetic shoulders as they walked, understanding finally why the salespeople here were so causal, so laid back. These things sold themselves.
"Wh-why d-d-don't you ca-ca-call me Phil," the man suggested as they continued their stroll.
Iggy snapped rudely into consciousness, feeling the bite of cold rain on his face. He rolled over and hacked up the remnants of a vicious nightmare, then sat up while his head spun madly to correct his balance. He was as used to this disorientation as one could get. He waited while it passed. He'd been in that dark dream place again; the place where a shadow was standing beyond some impenetrable barrier. He'd been calling to it when the rain had started to fall and the dream had shifted, as the small nips of rain became a million ravenous bugs ripping the flesh from his face. He'd fled screaming from that place to awaken in another nightmare.
Where was this dirty, stinking place? It was an alley; that much was clear and to be expected. He'd awoken in more strange alleys than he cared to remember. But he'd never seen this one before. He had a flash memory of running from someone, he couldn't remember who or why. That too was to be expected. The wire often screwed up the memory for a while. It would come back and he was sure that he'd have to avoid certain parts of town for a while, but in the end, all the rest could wait. All that mattered was that he was flat, grounded, unplugged. He needed to find some juice and quickly, before the 'shadows' set in.
He felt behind his ears, rolling his fingers over the implants, checking for bumps or scars, infection. After a short inspection he was relieved that at least he didn't have to worry about that. He was clean. He was drenched though, and he was hungry. Starving would be more appropriate. He rose on shaking legs, cursing the frailty of this soft machine, then he wobbled out of the alley and into the gray prospect of facing another day unplugged.
Angel glanced from her Husband to 'the thing', then to her husband again... then 'the thing'. She pursed her lips disapprovingly and took a deep pull on her cigarette. She blew the smoke out the side of her mouth, curiously watching 'the thing' as it curiously watched the smoke disperse into the room.
"Phil, honey..." she started and faltered, looking for something, anything, to complain about. They'd already fought about the cost, and he had overcome that one by working out an installment plan with those sharks at Cybertronics. Hell, it was his money anyway. She'd brought up the neighborhood, but they weren't in the worst area, really. In the end, "It doesn't even look like you," was all she could come up with.
"Th-that's w-w-way too expensive," Phil responded. "Th-they have to d-do a DNA s-s-s," he paused a moment working the 's' in his head. "Simulation" he finished. "Only r-rich guys can afford that."
Angel sighed, turned her chair down the hall and maneuvered back to her room. "Well, just keep the dang thing out of my way," she said over her shoulder, angry only that there really wasn't anything to be angry about.
Phil ruffled the fake boy's black hair, still fascinated at how real he... it felt. "D-d-don't worry Jeffy, I think sh-sh-she l-likes you," he explained. "It's just her w-w-way." But the robot was still staring at the area where Angel's smoke had dissipated into the framework of the house.
"This isn't my way," Jessica informed Guest and dashed from the room. She was only gone for moments before she retuned. She stormed out of the hallway and thrust a resolute finger in her husband's face. Guest appeared properly admonished and waited patiently for the conditions of her acceptance.
"I am not getting involved in this, Guest. If you have decided to... to...," she stumbled for the word.
"Imprint, honey. They called it 'imprinting', and I have two weeks to decide, sooo..." he shrugged the rest of his reply away.
"Whatever!" she responded dismissively. "You want to do that, fine. But I am not getting involved." She stood silently for a moment as if trying to come up with another condition. When she could think of nothing she snorted once more, for good measure, and strode back into the bedroom, where she slammed the door.
Guest glanced down at the machine that stood quietly by the bay window where he'd left it. "Well, round two didn't go too bad, all things considered, eh?" he said. But Todd was preoccupied, its eyes scanning the room as it digested the layout of the house. Guest slid over to the bar and poured himself a brandy. He tipped the glass in a toast to the little fake boy he that he secretly hoped would help him relive part of his boyhood. "Salud," he muttered and downed the shot. It went down a lot more smoothly than his wife's reaction had.
Todd looked up at him with a disconnected smile. "Excuse me, Mr. Price" it said with flat innocence, "I didn't hear you."
"Why don't you call me, Guest."
"Ok, Guest," it replied.
Guest started to pour another drink but glanced at Todd, and decided to cap the bottle. Maybe he could try the fatherhood thing again, get it right this time. He started to ask the Mecha if he... it wanted to go for ice cream or something, but remembered who... what he was dealing with. For a flicker of a moment he wondered if maybe Jess was right; that this was a bad idea after all; that one couldn't simulate their way back to a cherished past. After a brief hesitance he decided two weeks was plenty of time to decide.
He heard a muffled thud down the hallway, something being thrown against the bedroom wall, a pillow by the sound of it. At least she wasn't throwing things that would get damaged. That was a good sign. Todd noticed the sound too, and turned its gaze toward the dark area of the house.
"Don't be concerned, Todd, she'll be ok," Guest said in a reassuring tone, knowing the machine didn't really care... yet. Todd looked back at him from a child's eyes; eyes that were disturbingly human. "You'll be ok, too" Guest added, when he heard the bedroom door open and Jess' footfalls coming back down the hall.
Time for round three.
"... and you're out, ace."
Iggy fought his way back out of his frantic introspection and tried to focus on Baxter's words. "What?"
Baxter eyed Iggy and shook his head of frazzled black hair. He moved his huge body back into the kitchen door and hefted something from the floor. "It's baseball," he explained as he heaved another stinking plastic sack into thre alley and tossed it into the recycler. "Remember baseball? You know, three strikes and you're out."
Iggy tried to understand what Baxter was talking about, but his head was not cooperating. All that really mattered was that the man was saying 'no'. "Bax, man... you can't do this, man. I just need someplace to plug in for the night, man... "Iggy knew the desperate pleas would do no good, but desperation overrode whatever pride he had left "I'm in the grey man... I can see the shadows comin', Bax. Just let me use one of the empty rooms."
"And when someone needs a room, I what?" Baxter shrugged. "Just tell 'em sorry, that's the designated wirehead room for the night, eh...your money's no good here?"
"I just need a few hours man, and I'll be good. It's just the pit, man... I can see it comin' up at me! I just wanna..."
"Cut it Iggy!"
Iggy stepped back. Baxter had never yelled at him before. There was a short silence as the two stared each other down. Some filthy furry thing scampered across the alley and sirens rose and fell in the distance. The environment seemed to grow smaller, compressed between the dark buildings around them. Iggy tried to compose himself. After a moment he managed a controlled façade and tried again.
"Look, Baxter, I'm sorry I let you down, man. You always been good to me and looked out for me and believe me, man, I appreciate it. I know I owe you, but..." he stopped as a sudden wave of convulsions caused his jaw to clench. It passed quickly, but it was a bad sign. He was getting the shakes.
"You need something to eat, Ig. I'll get you a sandwich or something, but no room and no current," Baxter put his hands on his wide hips, "and don't try hookin' up to anything on the exterior, I got it all monitored."
"I don't need a damn sandwich, Bax! I need some juice, just for a while!"
Baxter waved the boy off and walked back to the door. He started to go in, but he turned and fixed Iggy with an angry glare. "Look, Ig, I freakin' warned you about the wire, I told you it wasn't no casual thing; that it wasn't no thing that you could zone on for a while and then chill out for a few weeks like tranc or nirvana. I freakin' warned you!
"But no; you knew better than anyone, as usual, Ig. Now you're 'sprung', your brain's been juiced, kid. Your fun zone's been over-stimulated and it ain't never gonna let you rest. From now on, unless you're on the current, it's all gonna be the shadows." Baxter stopped yelling and a hint of sympathy showed in his bearded face. He'd seen so many like this. He felt for the kid, but he'd covered for him so many times and he wasn't about to have some wasted teenager withering away on the current in one of his rooms, staring into space with his drooling ecstatic grin, stinking up the place because he wouldn't unplug long enough to use the toilet.
"How old are you now, Ig? Eighteen? Nineteen?" he asked.
Iggy ignored the question. He had more immediate concerns; like what his next move would be. Baxter was his last hope. The man had plenty of rooms. It was only Wednesday, a dead night for the whores... wait... was it Wednesday? Or was it Friday? Or ... it didn't matter. Even if he got hold of a solar cell, and the chances were slim, he'd have to find a place to plug in. It wasn't safe to plug-in out of doors. He'd have to head across town; find an empty place with the juice on or something. He hoped he'd avoid whomever he'd pissed off. He hoped it wasn't any of Olmier's guys... they were rough. If he could only remember where he'd....
Iggy broke from his desperate introspection and looked up at Baxter.
"You ever see any old wire-heads, kid?"
Ig tried to think about this one, but his brain was buzzing as the shadows came closer. He couldn't focus on the question. Finally, he shook his head.
"Yeah? Well there's a reason for that."
The seasons don't announce themselves like they used to, or at least that's what Phil's mother had told him when he was just a boy. She'd said there was a time when they would slide in slowly, letting you know that warmer or colder days were on the horizon; that you should be getting the coats ready or putting them back in the closets for the season's passing.
But those days, like his confused youth, were gone. Summer came overnight. It slipped in on the heels of a storm and planted itself squarely on the heads of the inhabitants of Montclair insisting that it would be staying for at least a day or two... and then who knew what seasons may come. It had been years since any realistic prediction was possible.
Phil chose this day to make a crucial decision. He left the house early, slipping past Angel's disconcerting glare, ignoring Dag's curious inspections. He knew what the man would say if he didn't get away from the questions behind those eyes. He'd say "It's a kid. Can't you tell? I got me a boy." And Dag would surely reply "It's a robot," or something equally stupid, and then Phil would have to point out that it didn't really matter that it was a Mecha, what was important was that it was a kid, but Dag would get that damn holier than thou look in his eye and...
Phil stopped thinking about it. Even his mental version of the conversation wasn't turning out the way he'd like. He thrust his chin up and strode quickly out of the building and onto the street. Jeffy walked beside him with casual detachment. Soon, Phil decided, that boy will have a new type of walk; the kind of walk a boy has when he's walking with his Dad.
"D-d-dad" Phil said aloud and smiled at the sound. Yeah, he could get to like the sound of that word.
He walked his son-to-be along Lincoln, past 6th and 7th where the street- working girls and boys were heading for home or the trashy tranc zones that were set up in empty tenements. Some of them were being shuffled off by weary troopers, to spend a day in detox. What did it matter, they'd be back by nightfall.
Phil turned on 8th and walked along a cleaner corridor to the shuttle loop where he sat with his Mecha-boy and waited for the beach tram. He could feel the eyes on him and his new son.
"S-s-son," he said and smiled. Yeah, that was a good word too.
The beach isn't what it used to be either. He knew this was true because he'd seen pictures of the beach in old times. It used to be miles away from this place; a long slice of golden brown sand that ran in a gleaming strip along the side of the blue waters. Families would line the strip; playing and laughing, tossing balls at one another in between periods of frolicking about in the foaming waves. Now it was just this place where the ocean swallowed up the streets and the old buildings that descended below the water line.
Phil parked Jeffy on a bench that was part of the new seaside pavilion. The boy sat obediently and simulated an appraisal of his environment. Phil sat down and draped his arm over the quiet little Mecha's shoulder. They sat that way for some time as Phil relished the fatherly feeling this evoked. Angel would see it his way, eventually. She could be a bit crusty sometimes but deep inside he knew she...
Phil turned and squinted at the figure silhouetted against the glow of the sun.
"I think you're sitting on something of mine."
The man in the shadows ignored his requests and went about his incomprehensible business. Iggy approached the dark curtain that divided them; left them stranded in separate worlds, unknowable from the vantage of their distinct horizons.
A cascade of voices erupted from that darkened barrier; "why can't you ever do anything right?" "What the hell is wrong with you?" "Don't you care about anything?" and on and on, issued from a depth of rancor, the audible reek of this suppressed abode.
Iggy pushed away these vile emotions and looked up at the silhouette that loomed so far above. The dark outline of the unseen face turned this way and that, as it commanded its world to order. The image faded as the shadows crept in.
Unforgiving, they came slowly behind an angry, venomous swarm of invisible gnats that nestled in his crotch and armpits and nostrils and anyplace where the flesh was sensitive and difficult to scratch. And even if he did scratch, leaving him stranded, naked in the eye of public disdain, it would do no good. Without a current the itching just gets worse.
Then would come the shadows themselves; spreading their thick arms, grasping and submerging him beneath the dark waters of his regrets. Most drown here. Iggy was clinging on with whatever strength he had left.
Not even the trancs wanted him around. He was too obvious, they'd said and kicked him out one of their stinking little hovels that lined 7th Street. He'd had to move quickly lest the troopers spot him and drag him down to detox. If they saw the plugs he'd never get out.
The sound of laughing children was annoying static against his ears. It echoed through his head and kept him from escaping to sleep; the one place where he might be able to ride out the swarm until he could find some juice.
It was time to move.
He rose, forcing himself from the tangle of brush where he'd slept, into a precarious standing position, successfully fighting the urge to scratch at the imaginary invaders that nibbled at his groin. He looked scary enough without drawing further attention to himself. He was sure he smelled pretty scary too. He stepped difficultly onto the main walkway and began to search for a sleeping place away from the playground.
That's when he saw Pike and everything came back to him.
"W-what?" Phil asked and shifted to see what it was that he might have missed when he sat down.
"That," the man said gesturing to a newly warped folder that was lodged in the crease of the bench behind Phil.
"Oh." Phil retrieved the folder and handed it to the man. "S-sorry". Then he noticed the boy standing at the edge of the walkway, just beyond the man. He knew the look in those eyes.
"H-h-hey," Phil intoned and gestured to his own little companion. "M-m-e too."
"You're having a bit of a time with those consonants, aren't you?" Guest joked as he tucked the imprinting protocol under his arm. He immediately felt guilty. "Not that it's an issue or anything... I mean..." he stopped talking then, having decided that there was no correct way out of his blunder.
Phil shrugged off the apology and pointed at the boy. "C-c-cyber-t-t- tronics?"
Guest winked. "Well, I guess they're the only ones who carry the damned things. At least until someone figures out an imprinting process outside their intellectual jurisdiction."
Phil smiled and opened his mouth, but realized he had nothing to say. He was glad to feel like he wasn't alone in desiring fatherhood, even if only a simulated one. But he wasn't quite sure how to initiate a conversation like that with someone whose name he didn't even know.
"Guest," the man said, offering Phil his hand and a way out of his uncomfortable silence.
"Phil," he replied and took the man's hand. It was an uptown shake, firm but lacking the substance of his brethren in the laboring classes. What was this guy doing down here?
"Soooo..." Phil let the question trail off and eyed the place around them. Guest raised an eyebrow and then guessed what the inquiry might be.
"Well, my dad used to take me fishing when I was a kid, and since there's no place uptown I thought I'd bring..." he nodded his head to the quiet Mecha boy behind him. "It's a sentimental thing, I guess. A little squishy around the edges, perhaps."
Phil nodded. Guest tilted his head to the side suggesting Phil take his turn at breaking the ice. "Oh. Well, w-w-we c-couldn't get a license," Phil explained, complying with the implied request. Guest glanced away, uncomfortable with the potential drift of this conversation. Economic differences were often a source of embarrassment for those who fared better in these tremulous times. Phil noted the man's discomfort and decided to change the subject.
"He l-l-looks like a g-g-good one," Phil acknowledged, trying to move towards more mutual concerns. Guest beamed and ruffled Todd's hair. The robot smiled up at him automatically.
"Yes, so far so good. But then again, so far hasn't really been that far. Yet." He nodded at the little machine that Phil had his arm casually draped over. "I considered that model," he said. "But preferred the brunette in the end. The freckles give it a sort of an authentic look, I guess."
"Have y-y-ou immm-pri-pri..."
"No. Not yet," Guest replied, figuring out what word had the man stuck. "I haven't really had him long enough for..."
Guest stopped when he heard a thin whining sound coming from along the walkway beside him. Phil noticed it too and both men turned their heads in time to see a frantic looking kid, thin as bones, with a fiery shock of red hair, emitting a thin whine as he dashed towards them. The boy had obviously meant to round the corner and head up the incline that lead to parking and trams. But this plan had not been well thought out. He obviously had not figured that there might be people in his path. The kid yelped as he crashed into Phil's new friend, causing the man to land in a heap on the ground.
The man's Mecha stepped back to get away from the confusion of limbs and swearing that the two Orga had become.
"What the hell is wrong with you, boy?" Guest roared as he struggled to his feet.
Iggy scrambled to his feet and waited for the dizziness to disperse. Then he remembered that he didn't have time to wait. Pike had seen him. It was after him. He started to run again.
Guest and Phil watched in amazement as the thin boy surged forward and ran straight into one of the thin metal columns that held up the awning that ran over the bench. His head smacked the pole with a metallic thud. The boy stepped back and smiled briefly; raised a finger as if he was about to explain his absurd behavior. Then he fell to the ground in a heap.
The two men eyed the vagabond quietly. Then they eyed each other. They'd both seen enough of this type. He probably had sockets hidden under that ragged matt of hair. With a mutual sigh they leaned over and lifted the teenager to the bench.
"Good lord," Guest reacted to the smell. His wave of revulsion was tempered only by the one of sympathy at the sight of the baby face the kid donned in unconsciousness.
"What c-c-an you do?" Phil asked rhetorically, shrugging his big shoulders. "He p-probly pi-pi-pi... wet himself." Guest nodded an agreement with this theory. This was not unusual for wire-heads to do. Simple bodily functions were a secondary concern when riding the current. They sat the boy on the bench and 'tsked' over him a moment before some sensation of guilt and a stronger, older one of empathy made them decide to find a trooper and get the brat off the street.
That was when something big and mean rounded the corner.
Pike was not angry. It didn't get angry. Anger wasn't in its list of responses. Business was, however.
A week ago someone had saddled themselves into one of the cribs where the customers Pike was responsible for, took care of their business. Whoever it was had locked the doors, wired in, and just made themselves comfortable for two days, stinking the place up and causing one of the customers to log a complaint with the dispatch. It had taken Pike a few minutes of record searches to get an image of the infractor and scour public databases.
He tracked the wire-head; plugging into every public terminal he passed and reading face logs. Then he found the fucker. An entry tracker at the north end of the beach had recorded his passage and guessed he was a tranc. It had made note just in case anything should happen and the troopers need a list of possible suspects.
It appeared that Pike was out for revenge. This was typical Orga reasoning and Pike expected that. But it wasn't revenge. One simple truth about Orga among the many that Pike had been required to download from 'simple truths about orga.org' before he was accepted for this position, was that they had a tendency to repeat the same mistakes and/or infractions time and time again unless there was an adequate response to the initial mistake/infraction combination.
Pike was out to make sure the response to the infraction was adequate. When it came to wire-heads, you had to be very adequate: adequate with extreme prejudice.
Guest stepped back from the muscular looking man-thing that stood before them. It regarded the two child Mecha with a slight measure of curiosity before it turned its attention to the red headed kid.
"Him," the thing said, pointing at the unconscious boy.
Guest shot a quick glance at Phil. Phil waved a hand suggesting that Guest relax. He'd seen these models before. The trancs had an old beat up one they used to protect their tripping house. Sure, this one was new and looked scary enough; its simulated muscular chest jutted menacingly above its slim torso and its bald-head simulating dome reflected back the sunlight. And yes, it's eyes were convincingly predatory. But it was still a Mecha and had its own rules to obey. Chief among them was to never hurt an Orga.
"W-w-what about him?" Phil inquired casually.
"He's yours?" the thing asked.
"Well, technically no," Guest snickered and then regretted it immediately, as the thing turned to face him.
"Explain," it said. Guest gestured quickly at Phil and shrugged, suggesting that the man on the bench might be the only hope for any reasonable explanation.
"Y-y-yeah... he's ours," Phil inexplicably lied, "H-h-he's our.. s-s-s-s-sss ..."
Pike waited patiently while the string of s's trailed on.
"Son," Guest finished the man's painfully long stutter and immediately realized that it sounded like a confirmation.
"Yeah," Phil laughed and donned a triumphant smile. Guest rolled his eyes as if to ask 'What in the hell did you say that for?', then he understood that Phil was, for some unknown reason, baiting the machine.
"Well ladies, your 's-s-s-s-s-s-s-son' owes me two days lost revenue!" Pike commanded.
"Wow, sarcasm," Guest grunted admiringly, in spite of his intimidation. "You must be new."
"Skip the bullshit!" Pike barked and turned back to Phil. "You got 1500 new- bucks, or do I take it out of your s-s-s-son's ass?"
"You must be very new," Guest intoned warily and stepped back. "Never heard a Mecha talk that way."
"There's n-n-not much l-l-left of hissss... ass to take anything out of, but you c-can tr-tr-try," Phil said. His calm demeanor wasn't exactly a deception, but it wasn't totally sincere either.
Then something happened that neither of them really expected.