You are standing at an existential crossroads, a wasteland at your feet and a song on your lips. Overhead, a trio of mechanical vultures have begun circling, and the red dots of their laser-sights are crawling across your bare chest.
To the west runs a dank near-motionless river, and every now and then something thrashes around in the water. The way east is blocked by an endless sense of ennui. South is a burning city, and an ex-wife to whom you owe alimony. To the north stretches an endless desert, with rumours of a herd of undead camels. There is a gleaming muscle-car parked here, but passage to it is blocked by an enormous white bull.
There is a set of tubular bells here, and a three-legged stool. There is a sign on the river bank.
Obvious exits are North, South, and Angst.
It says “Do Not Swim”
Your wife’s divorce lawyer is eyeing you from the city outskirts. Are you sure?
You are carrying:
Divorce Papers
3 Bullets
Your Sense of Self-Respect
Wet Towel
A Mid-Life Crisis
Toasted Cheese Sandwich
The bull paws at the ground and snorts. Are you sure?
I’m sorry, I can’t understand that command.
You hit at the bells. You haven’t been trained in the musical artistry of tubular bells, and the sound seems to anger the bull. You now regret torching the Tubular Bell Academy.
Your pistol is unloaded
You try, only to discover that these are chocolate bullets.
Blocking your passage to the muscle-car is an enormous albino bull. This powerful creature towers over you, with blood-stained horns and a piercing gaze that speaks of great intelligence. It is looking at you expectantly, but warily.
It sniffs at your cheese sandwich with disgust.
You pick up the three-legged stool.
You sit down on the stool and rest.
What are you, some kind of wise guy?
The wet towel has soaked everything in your pack! The papers are ruined.
The towel is now dry, and should be safe to put in your pack.
The bull is satisfied with your offering, and leaps into the river to fight with the unseen water-creature. It’s an epic battle of the titans, and will likely go on for hours.
You open the driver’s door and climb in. It smells good.
The muscle-car roars into life, and the fuel gauge leaps to full. “Born to be Wild” is playing on the stereo.
You floor it.

Note: This story, while it stands alone, belongs to the Anan Muss series.

Anan Muss was careful, but not so careful he didn’t make mistakes (after all, a legion of King Ash’s slitters once sliced arc-blades at his head on every quantum-entanglement port).   Anan’s caution primarily meant it took longer to do simple tasks–as if his brain had rocketed to light-speed, slowing down his time, relative to others’.  Washing, ironing, and folding laundry usually cost him a weekend, even with robots. Cleaning his apartment required a week’s vacation.

Love was trickier.  Courtship took time:  a month to muster the courage to ask women to the aquarium theater, to talk intimately and walk the hanging orchid gardens, yet another month to kiss beneath bridges by the canals, and a year later to fall helplessly in love.  The year after that might have been marriage, he supposed, but women rarely waited long enough for him to ask them out.

Luckily, the second-generation AI ladies appeared in Japan.  All the shy lads wanted one.  By design, quantities were low, demand high.  One would have cost his year’s accounting salary.

So Anan mail-ordered one of those borderline real phonies made in China.  His fingers trembled as he unwrapped her.  Her skin–a soft, off-ivory–accentuated her raven-black hair.  His heart wanted to gallop away, but he reined it in.  She accepted his hand and stepped out of the box, “Am I not beautiful?”

Caught off-guard, yet ever poetic, Anan sought the right words:  “Yes…. I mean, no…. I mean, you are beautiful.”

“Love me, and I will be whomever you want.”

“Being yourself is enough although contents may settle, like cereal in a box.”

“And you will be whomever I want you to be.”

“Sure.  Within the limits of my present brain pattern.”

She laid plans of their future together.  He said he hoped she would have patient understanding, be someone he could share words with, someone who’d sharpen him gently, someone who would challenge and accept challenge.  “That’s exactly who I am,” she said, mentioning her unparalleled poetic sensibility.

As he painted her a porcelain love poem, he spoke of this inane idea he’d had of dating women virtually–not for love per se, but to understand women better.

He handed her his poem:

Laxity in

love milks

the black

swell of

twisted minutes

into hours

She shattered the porcelain and stalked away.  “I have no time for words.”

“She’s right.”  Anan sifted through the broken chips.  “It’s not much of a love poem.”

David Kopaska-Merkel

“When I brought home my history test the other day, I thought my dad was going to kill me,” John said.

His friend Sunil just shook his head. “I know, seriously. My stepdad was the same way when he found out I flunked math.”

“He just keeps saying ‘Sixty four! Sixty four!’ like I couldn’t read my own grade–”

“I hate it when they do that.”

“–and he’s practically ripping my head off about it, and I’m like, ‘Give me a break, Dad! There’s more to life than brains!’”

“Whoa, heads up, man! Old Lady Heiserman, twelve o’clock.”

John looked up just in time to see Mrs. Heiserman throw her walker aside and lurch toward him and Sunil. He reached behind him and had to flail around with his hand for few seconds before he could get a grip on the iron pry bar he kept in his backpack, but he got it just in time and wallopped Mrs. Heiserman over the head. She must have been hungry, though, because it barely slowed her down. John kicked her in the knee, and she collapsed on the sidewalk, hissing at him. While she was regenerating, he and Sunil ran across the Webers’ lawn and took the back way home.

“Freaking adults, man,”

“I know,” said Sunil.

Back at the house, John’s mom was home from work at the Children’s Hospital and was making coconut baked fish. They tried going through the living room, but she must have heard them.

“Homework! Do your homework!” she moaned, lurching toward them.

“I will, Mom. We’re just going to play Wii in my room for a few minutes, then we’ll get right to it.”

“Homework first!” She lurched toward them, snatching at John’s head. “Brains!”

“Come on, Mom, leave my brains alone,” John said. He and Sunil sprinted into his room and barricaded the door behind them.

“Comb your hair!” his mom groaned.

“Man, I hope when I’m an adult, I don’t turn into such a zombie,” John said.

“Seriously, man,” Sunil said, hooking an open bag of Doritos from the dresser. “Seriously.”

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