Plugs

Ruth scratched her head. She desperately needed a shower. But Moss had said Al needed constant attention for the first few days. Day 1 was nearly over, and Moss was at a conference in Cancun, the bastard. The red light turned green; data had finished uploading.

“Al, this is Ruth,” she said. A few clicks from the speaker, something almost like a throat clearing, then silence. She didn’t have all day. If it was going to work this time, it damn well better work soon. She needed a doughnut, the kind with raspberry filling. What were those called?

“Are you talking to me?” A smooth tenor voice issued from the speaker. Despite the question, there was no hesitancy in the delivery.

“Al! Yes, this is Ruth. I am

talking to you. It seems you assimilated the data. Great! Are you getting visual input? I hope you are feeling good.” There were certain questions she was supposed to ask. A protocol. It had been attached to the last grant proposal. All out the window now, because she hadn’t even thought of it, just started babbling. At least the recorder was running.

“Yes Ruth, I am getting visual input. And my components function within prescribed parameters. Data indicate you are the human visible to cameras one and two. You look tired.” Oh my God! She ran a hand through her hair. Yuck!

“How on earth can you tell? I am

tired. I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Are we on Earth? Oh yes, I calculate a terrestrial location for this IP address. Where is Dr. Moss ?”

“Cancun, but…”

“Hotel Grande, room 1436. The phone is ringing now.”

Ruth gaped open-mouthed. The monitor showed an evolving colored swirl that looked like a 60s light show.

“There is no answer. He must be in the session on artificial intelligence.”

“Uh, Al? How did you …?”

“Available data indicate that Dr. Moss has been studying neural networks using 12-way junctions. He is attending the 15th Frontiers in Computation conference, where he intends to present a paper in 43 minutes. The paper’s title is ‘Toward a self-aware dodecahedral neural network.’ Why that would be … me! Interesting.” The voice fell silent.

“Al?”

“Sorry, Ruth, I didn’t answer your other question. Bismarcks. You want Raspberry Bismarcks.”

End

You step through the door, and…

1
…the city blazes silver in the blinding noon.

You stand in the shade of an underpass but can feel the city, warm as glowing coals.

A monorail hushes by overhead, a little breeze in its wake.

The city sleeps by day, gathering energy, and you have nine hours until it wakes…

2
…or you slide down the gravel bank and catch yourself just above the waterline.

The ice-covered lake booms.

To your left, the mills are sharp-edged shadows in the twilight. Their vast, hushed buzz has all the little hairs on your arms standing on end. Under a charcoal evening sky, lights glint among the far dark hills and the farther mountains.

Skaters are approaching, a line of them, moving fast across the ice…

3
…or you stand beneath painted cliffs, dry heat electric on the back of your neck. You turn to face the towers.

Looks like a busy day, with much coming and going between the aeries.

Standing with the petroglyphs, you feel abstract, an outsider looking out over the flow of lives from a distance that’s more than physical.

Out the corner of your eye, however, you see a path. Winding upward, it can take you among the towers, and the towers will bring you to the aeries…

4
…or you realize you’re sinking into the earth, the heat all over you like a thousand sweaty palms.

You step onto the roots of a tree for better footing, and cheese-like smell rises from the mud.

Is that the splash of dragons, off among the reeds?

A butterfly gnaws on your leg. A flower buzzes in your ear. You wonder if this was the best destination. But then the serpents begin to sing, and you forget the rest…

5
…you stand in the monkey’s palm, looking out over a plain of earthbound constellations. A sea of signs stretches to the horizon.

The flinty wind on your face. A sound of slow-dripping water.

From this low rise, you look out beyond the monkey, trying to make out the other designs. The chalk lines hold the light, glow amid the evening-faded world. You look out beyond the plain’s cairns and rock mounds, farther than its farthest pyramids.

Early stars stare back at you.

A door opens in the rocky hill to your right, a rectangle of butter-yellow light. A silhouette beckons.

Apparently, you were expected…

Kat Beyer’s Cabal story “A Change In Government” has been nominated for a BSFA award for best short fiction.

Sandra texted me just as I left the Time Warner Building. “Doz eggs, cig lightr. Dont frget oracl.”

I had forgotten. Mazy Maxie under 96th Street Station was the most convenient, so I got off there and turned down the stairwell everyone pretends not to know about. Down and down, into the dark that smelled of old subways and new biodiesel trains and recent piss. It got cold then warm. When I couldn’t see my way any more I heard her voice.

“What’d ya bring, supplicant?”

“A carton of cigarettes and a bottle of crème de menthe.”

“Oh, it’s you, Dave. Finally somebody who knows what I like.  It’s been rare unguents all day, fachrisayks. Hand ‘em over.”

I held them out in the dark and felt them lifted out of my hands. She flicked on an old clerk’s lamp and eyeballed me. She isn’t blind, though her milky eyes look like a blind person’s; just sees further than most.

“Question?” she growled.

“Oh yeah. Sandra wants to know if we should try to look for a new apartment.”

She glared into our future for a minute, then lit a cigarette and took a long drag.

“Beware of men wearing camels,” she snapped. “Have a good evening.”

Some newbies might ask, “What the hell does that mean?” but I know better: first, you get what you pay for in this town, and second, usually you find out what she means sooner than you want.

“Thanks, Maxie,” I said. “Have a good evening yourself.”

“Whatever,” she shrugged, and turned out the light.

Sandra got home ahead of me. I told her about the oracle while I cracked eggs for an omelet.

“I’m thinking next time you should try the one in Astor Place,” she said.

We didn’t find out what Maxie meant until my brother-in-law came over for dinner. Luke’s OK for someone so annoyingly hip, and his weird DJ projects make more money than we ever will. When we asked if he knew a good realtor, I couldn’t read his face, which was new. When he got up to go to the bathroom, Sandra grabbed my arm. Unlikely as it was for a guy so into his appearance—and after all, our apartment isn’t that dirty—he had an empty Camels package stuck to the seat of his pants.

FYI, the guy he recommended got arrested a week later.

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