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OBLIVION’S CHILDREN

Chapter 8 — ORGANIZATION

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"What is this E.G.O. meeting you are taking me to?” asked Versum as he and Murl strutted down Zwingli Street.

“It is the Elder Genue Organization,” replied Murl. “After much thought over many months, I concluded that genues, at least the older ones, should meet and discuss their perceptions of the human universe and problems they had encountered. Adam approved the idea. Now there are chapters in other cities besides Risen Falls.”

Versum fell behind when he paused to scrutinize a long abandoned gasoline station. A few quick steps and he was shoulder to shoulder with Murl. “But I am not an elder genue. I am merely five months old.”

“Yes, that is true. But Adam thinks you can learn much by being my companion. Therefore, he assigned you to be my personal assistant.”

“So you are superior to me?”

“As far as years of knowledge and experience, yes. But you have GenLink, an internal communicator that allows you to talk to other genues so equipped.”

“Why don’t you?” He followed Murl across a vacant lot.

“GenLink is a quite recent innovation. Even though Micael Wyman conceived the idea long ago, it has taken the governments of the world almost ten years since his death to set aside a special radio frequency for genues. You were one of the first created with it.”

“I can pass on a message for you, if you like.”

“Thank you for the offer, Versum.”

The two of genues passed a huge stadium.

“What’s that?” Versum asked.

“That’s where people watched other people play football. But not anymore. Like most spectator games, football required a great deal of energy and good health. The youngest humans, now over 45 years of age, do not have the stamina for such activity. Golf, bowling, and doubles tennis are still popular, however.”

They turned the corner at Main Street. Versum observed that traffic was light and that there were few people walking about. He was curious about several genues carrying packages, but he did not try to communicate with them. “Are we almost there?”

“Yes, almost,” replied Murl. “When we do get there, I want you to stand out of the way and observe. The older genues have learned a lot about human society and you can learn a lot from them.”

“Sure, Murl. But are you sure Adam will not mind the two of us being gone from headquarters?”

“We are current in our duties, for the moment. Besides, Adam trusts my judgment and he is very supportive of E.G.O.”

“What kinds of discussions go on at these meetings?” Versum asked.

“At the first few meetings, we just set up a preliminary organizational structure and talked about a possible agenda. I was appointed chairgenue. Some committees were named with special assignments. That’s about all that’s transpired so far. There’s our meeting place just ahead.”

They neared an old building with a sign jutting out toward the street that read REFLECTIONS. It was a multi-screen projection theater abandoned nearly a century earlier. As had happened with many properties in the city, the ownership of this building seemed to evaporate and soon no one cared of its existence. Although it was marred and scarred by years of neglect it was still usable space, so E.G.O took it over for their meetings.

Murl pulled open one of the glass doors that were covered over by yellowing newspaper. Versum had never seen such paper and his curiosity kept his eyes focused on it, swiveling his head almost around as he walked through the doorway.

“What is that strange literary form glued to the doors?”

Murl turned to take notice. “Oh, that used to be a form of daily news conveyance. It’s doubtful that anybody ever read it, though. Apparently, carrying a newspaper, or having one tossed on the furniture was a status symbol among humans for a long time. To the rich, it showed style, akin to serving parts of dead animals for dinner.”

The discussion was interrupted by the greetings of about two dozen other genues milling around in the red-carpeted lobby. Since genue legs do not get tired, the group decided to hold their meeting in the lobby around the concession stand instead of in one of the sloping auditoriums with chairs all facing in one direction.



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— 86 —

Murl stood next to the empty popcorn cage. “Thank you, fellow genues, for coming to the Risen Falls Elder Genue Organization this afternoon. We welcome any new attenders and hope you find these meetings as informative as we have. It is our purpose to exchange ideas and experiences to not only help humankind through their difficult situation but also to smooth any adjustments and changes that come to genues.”

Heads turned to a clanking sound by the ticket box where Versum had knocked down a cordon stand. As the young genue righted the chrome pole with a barely audible, “I’m sorry,” attention returned to Murl.

“At the previous meetings,” he continued, “we developed a preliminary agenda for E.G.O. and we agreed to organize into three committees. Brint was to head the committee on human poverty, Mirgas has the committee on genue-dominant communities, and Tallo is leading the investigation of genue access to human learning centers and professional positions.”

Versum spoke up from the back. “What about the Amber Day mystery? Shouldn’t that be on the agenda, Murl?”

The chairgenue held up his hand to remind the newcomer to keep silent. “Please, Versum, this is not the time to alter the agenda. Besides, I do not think that the Amber Day mystery has any relevance to our purpose.”

“I beg the chair’s indulgence,” called out Tallo. “But that is an interesting suggestion by Versum. The Amber Day mystery certainly is a curiosity. It involves scientific investigations. Perhaps genues, if given a chance, could contribute to the solution. In that way we would be helping humanity.”

“Yes,” said Versum, “I would be willing to study the problem. I have already read much about human biology.”

“Although this notion seems admirable,” Murl said, “I think it is premature. It will do us no good to talk of solving the Amber Day mystery until we achieve our objective of access to the tools of advanced knowledge.”

“Agreed,” echoed several members in the back of the lobby.

A loud squeaking sound rifled across the lobby followed by a dull crash. All heads rotated to the entrance of the women’s washroom. Versum, who had wandered around the back of the crowd, had leaned up against the door and fallen in.

Through the sole sound of Versum getting to his feet Murl made a staid observation. “Versum, your repeated distractions are disturbing our meeting—and me.”

“I’m sorry,” Versum replied as he moved away from the door.

Murl rapped his knuckles on the glass of the popcorn cage. “Let’s get back to the agenda. Tallo, give us a report on your committee’s discussions. What can we do to help genues to gain access to the institutions of higher learning and the professional occupations?”

“Thank you, Chairgenue Murl.” Tallo turned to face the others. “We all know that each of the 80 million genue beings in the world today is capable of more than menial labor. However most people view genues as merely slaves. The committee believes we must change this perception. Only then can we make some headway into gaining equal access to the institutions of learning and scientific investigations.”

As Tallo spoke, Versum’s attention was captured by the subtle movement of shadows on the papered glass doors. He made his way to the main entrance, being careful not to disturb the listeners. Hearing subtle noises coming through the doors, he peeked through a tear in the newspaper and saw two men talking just in front of the theater. Their arms rose and swung in wild gestures. He did not know what to make of it. The sound of Murl’s voice brought his head back around to the meeting.

“Now for the report from Mirgas and the problem of the genue dominant communities.”

Mirgas spoke. “So far our committee has found only two communities where genues now outnumber people. Although no problem existed in either place yet, the committee did ponder the ultimate situation, when all the people are gone and only genues exist.”

The room buzzed with soft words of awakening minds. Murl tapped lightly on the popcorn cage to restore the decorum.

“And what are the implications?” asked Kalindo.

“They are bewildering,“ Mirgas answered. ”Our purpose is to serve humanity, and without people around, we would need to have a new purpose defined for us.“

”Could we not adopt humankind’s purpose?” mused Kalindo.

“And what is that?” came a call from the back.

No one responded. Each member waited for someone else to speak a revelation, but none did. They all looked at their leader.

Finally Mirgas spoke up. “Murl, do you know what humankind’s purpose is?”

“I do not know,” Murl answered. “And this is not the time to discuss this matter. While there still are humans, and a chance that they will reproduce again, we need not speculate about such things. Now, let us move on. Brint, what have you to report about human poverty?”



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— 87 —

Brint spoke. “Thank you, Chairgenue Murl. As you know, most of us here reside in fairly affluent households or institutions. We seldom see the less fortunate human environments. However, our preliminary investigation has uncovered a place here in Risen Falls. In the south part of town the people have inadequate services to meet their biological needs. They have poor nutrition, their living quarters are in need of repair, they have minimal transportation means, and they have almost no means of communication, not even primitive I-ports. The more fortunate humans are afraid to enter the region.”

Versum took another look through the papered glass door. Now there were five people talking.

Murl pointed to Brint. “What does the committee recommend?”

“We have no recommendation yet,” replied Brint. “We thought that if we were to take an excursion along South Fork Road, one of the unfortunate part of Risen Falls, we might assess the residents’ needs, and maybe develop a strategy to help them—to provide them with some kind of services.”

Murl’s memory was jogged by the reference to that street. He remembered the address of 2153 South Fork Road as the place where his creator, Micael Wyman, was killed ten years earlier. He realized now that he had never been there. The thoughts aroused his curiosity about that place.

“Do you mind,” offered Murl, “if I volunteer for such an expedition?”

“But you are not on the committee,” came the puzzled reply.

“Yes, that is true. But that place has a special curiosity for me. I have never had an occasion to go to that part of town and it would be useful for my mental closure to see it in reality. I will take Versum with me and we can make the required observations and report back to your committee.”

“As you wish, chairgenue.”

Versum once again peeked outside. The crowd had grown to fourteen people and they were carrying large tools or implements. Their expressions did not look friendly. They were moving toward the entrance. After a quick analysis of the situation, the young genue turned the lock on the door and announced, “Murl, there is a group of angry humans about to join our meeting. They carry axes and clubs.”

Murl knew from experience that angry humans were not good for genues. “And now it is getting late. So let us adjourn this meeting. All members, leave at once through the theater and out the back door—and cover your ears until you are outside!”

The doors began to shake and rattle. Cupping their hands over their ears the genues hustled into one of the auditoriums, down the aisle toward the wide screen, and across a row of seats to the fire exit. Tallo pushed open the door and stuck his head out. No humans were in sight.

Each genue took a different path across the vacant lot in the direction of home. Murl and Versum took a circuitous route back to their car parked several blocks away.

“Why did you have us cover our ears?” asked Versum.

Murl answered without missing a step. “If they had commanded us to let them in, we would have had to obey. And no doubt they would have attacked and maimed many or all of us. If we could not hear, we could not obey.”

“I am impressed by your logic but your solution was incomplete. How did you know it was safe to retreat out the back door? There might have been a crowd there also.”

“Yes, that is true. But remember that logic and luck are not mutually exclusive. Besides, there was no alternative.”

——

“Merry morning, you all!” greeted Hope as she entered the breakfast room of the Wyman estate. “Today’s the day!”

Raffy, the estate genue, was serving real eggs and cultured protein ham with toast to Adam and his mother. He now had to prepare a third place for this guest in tight canvas pants and synthetic rawhide jacket. It had been over three years since Hope had moved back to Risen Falls from Chicago to live here, and still he could not predict when she would show up for a meal.

“Hi, Hope.” When Adam smiled, little wrinkles radiated from his eyes toward the gray fringes of his dusty blonde hair. He was in his customary leisure clothes.

Dawna, dressed in a kimono, did not find Hope’s good mood contagious. She just nodded politely and continued to saw at the ham on her plate.

Raffy, clad only in an apron, put a plate and utensils before her and uttered, “Hello, Hope.”

“Today’s the day for what?” Adam asked.



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— 88 —

“I’m going to visit Mama.” She showed her teeth through a wide grin. “I’ve been meaning to get with her, but always chickened out. I figure a door is only a window til you walk through it. So I’m going to do it. I’ll be staying with her—don’t know how long. Maybe a few weeks—maybe longer.”

Dawna munched her toast, eyes peeking up at her son to see his reaction. It was okay with her if Hope left. She wasn’t much company for a woman nearly seventy years old anyway.

“Off on another escapade?” Adam said with disappointment. “It’s been just two weeks since you came back from visiting a friend. And the time before that, you stayed only a month.”

“Like a rubber ball, I am.”

Adam squeezed Hope’s hand. “I’m going to miss counting pillows with you at night.” He glanced at his mother with a little embarrassment. “I mean, we count one, two and then… Well, we… She has a thing about pillows.” He saw that her eyes were closed in a long blink. He went back to Hope. “When’s the last time you saw your mother?”

“Saw her—in real life, you mean? Pinch me, I can’t remember. I think maybe nine years ago. We chew a lot on the I-port, though. Not always a pleasant experience. A strange bird, Mama is. But she’s getting on in years. And I think we need to get it back together, her and me, before it’s too late. I don’t know; maybe it’s guilt on my part. But she’s my mama. You get it?” Hope motioned at Raffy as he began pouring the steaming coffee into her cup. “Don’t fix me anything. I’ll just take a shingle.”

The genue nodded and left.

She took a slice of toast from the stack on the platter, bit into it and mumbled through the chewing, “I may be back in seven or eleven.” Then a swallow of coffee. “Doesn’t seem like I can glue my butt down anywhere for very long, does it? But like I say, life is too short to live reruns.” She stood up and grabbed Adam’s hand. “Come on, Cream Pie, give your Chocolate Cake a kiss.”

Adam stood up also, and they kissed like lovers. “Be waiting for you, like always,” he said in her ear.

Hope waved the toast like a hankie. “Bye, all.” Raffy followed her to help her with her luggage.

“Bet you’re glad to see her go, eh, Mom?” Adam said as he sat back down and began digging into his ham.

Dawna took a napkin to her lips. “She’s sweet. I like her, but two women in the same house isn’t always easy.” Her composure broke down. “It’s not that it’s two women. I’m your mother and she’s your… you know… not.” Her look of wisdom gave way to confused embarrassment. “I often wonder why you two didn’t get married.”

“Married?” exclaimed Adam. “Nobody gets married. What’s the point?”

“You don’t mind her going off like this?”

“Sure, I mind. But she’s a free person.” He saw that she needed consoling. “I’m more concerned about making sure you have a pleasant life here.”

“You know I love it here. You’ve been a joy to be around. When your father was killed my whole life seemed to disintegrate. I’m thankful I had you to fall back on. I don’t know what people do who don’t have children.” A brief pause and a giggle revealed the absurdity of her statement. “I guess that’s silly. People don’t have children.”

Adam patted his mother’s arm. “People fill their lives with other things. For me, it’s genues. My work on genue psychology at the lab is fascinating and stimulating. I guess they are my children.”

“I suppose so.”

“I’ve been reading up on child psychology and the old books are giving me new ideas about genue development. There were lots of studies back then that showed playing activities increased creativity and problem solving abilities in human children. Playing—you know, like games, puzzles, role playing, pretending, or whatever—seems to have been very important in developing a creative and adaptive child. I was thinking of introducing more of this into the early training of genues.”

Dawna listened and looked into her son’s eyes. “You have your father’s passion for the genue. I’m glad.”

“There’s so much to do.” Adam’s voice began to bubble with enthusiasm. “We’re rerunning all the landmark experiments of human psychology on genues. We’re trying to catalog the psychological differences, the mental dynamics, rational derivatives of behavior. Not only are we learning a lot about the genue, but we finally are able to distinguish the role of human instinct in human behavior. And with all this we can see that genues are passing Turing’s test more and more often.”

“I remember your father mentioning Turing’s test. I never really understood it.”

“In the middle of the 20th century a guy named Alan Turing said that when you can’t tell the difference between a response from a human and a computer, then you can say the computer thinks. Same goes for genues. To take on human roles and responsibilities successfully they have to demonstrate behavior and judgment indistinguishable from humans. The oldest, most experienced genues are largely doing that now. Just look at Murl.”



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— 89 —

“Yes, he amazes me. Your dad would be so pleased.” She stared at a daydream in her cup, then took a sip. Her eyes jumped back to reality. “It all sounds very exciting—for you. The most excitement I ever get nowadays is making a slam in a bridge game. And there won’t be much more of that. All the old-timers who play are dying. Too bad the younger generation hasn’t taken to it.”

“I’m just not any good at it, Mom. But that gives me an idea.” Before he could finish, his attention was drawn to the genue entering the room.

“Adam, may I talk with you?” Murl asked. He was holding a book with a finger serving as a book mark.

Dawna rose from her seat and smiled at the genue. “Good morning, Murl. I was just leaving. You guys can talk. I’m going to go change.”

“Thank you, Dawna,” Murl acknowledged as she brushed past him.

Adam cocked his head to read the title of Murl’s book. “Oh, I see you started Being and Nothingness by Sartre. How do you like it?”

“Fine, Adam. I just remembered something I need to mention to you. I would like to take an excursion to the south side of town, down on South Fork Road, with Versum.”

“Whatever for?”

“At the E.G.O. meeting it was brought up that the people there were not living very decent lives. We were wondering if there was something genues could do to help them.”

“I really don’t think you can help those people. Their condition is due to their own prejudices and ignorance. Besides, they don’t like genues very much. That’s part of their problem.”

“We must go to find out for ourselves.”

“You do remember that it was in that part of town that my father was killed, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know.”

They looked at each other for a moment, remembering their confrontation that one night long ago.

“I won’t stop you from going, but if you go, I want you to be extra cautious. And if you do run into trouble, have Versum call for help on his GenLink.”

“That is a good idea.” Murl wondered it he would ever get upgraded to have an internal phone. He would like that. There was no envy in the thought, just an unspoken desire of a logical mind. “How about later this afternoon? Will it be all right if Versum and I go there then?”

“Certainly. Say, there’s something else. You know how interested I am in developing the genue to be more well-rounded, in getting you to take on more leisure activities?”

“Yes,” replied Murl. “We don’t always know why, but we do as you ask.”

“My mother enjoys playing bridge and is having difficulty finding players. I want you, Versum and Raffy to learn the game so she can always have a foursome when she wants to play. This will be a great way for you and the other genues to broaden your personalities—to do entertaining things. And I think you’ll enjoy it; it’s quite a logical game.”

“We will do it if that is what you desire. I remember playing Crazy Eights with you when you were five. Your mother instructed me to let you win some of the time so you wouldn’t get discouraged. Should we do this in playing bridge with Dawna?”

Adam laughed and shook his head. “I don’t think you’ll need to do that for quite a while.”

——

When Hope arrived at the house of her childhood that afternoon, she found the street crowded with cars. She parked in a spot seven doors down the block. As she walked back, she noticed a common bumper sticker on each of the cars. Big red letters proclaimed “HARP Today—Children Tomorrow.” As she went up the driveway of her mother’s house she noticed the car in the open garage had an additional sticker curling off the back window; “Keep the Faith with HARP.”

“Oh, dusty doodads, she still has that damn chimp in her brain. Some things never change.”

She stepped up on the porch and went to the door. She froze. “Got to do it.” She gripped the door knob.. then let go. Instead, she rang the bell.

A stranger, homely in spite of heavy make-up, or because of it, opened the door and asked, “Yes?”



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— 90 —

“Hi. I’m Roda Strand’s daughter, Hope. She’s expecting me.”

The woman stared at the brown face for a few seconds and twisted her mouth almost into the shape of a question mark. “Really? You certainly don’t look like her.”

Through clenched teeth she said, “I’ve heard it before. Just tell her a weird chick named Hope is at the front door and see what she does.”

The woman gave a huff, then turned and disappeared into the house.

Hope tapped her foot, hummed a tune and looked at the sky.

“I was expecting you later this afternoon.”

Hope glanced into the doorway and saw a woman with hair redder and skin paler than she had remembered. Neither could make a lie of the many lines on the stern, hard face. “Hi, Mama.”

Roda’s first impulse was to invite her in as she would a salesman. But in that slight pause, her mother instinct took over and she stepped forward with open arms. They hugged. “Come on in. We’re having a HARP meeting, but it won’t last much longer.”

Hope followed her mother into the living room where twenty or so people sat and stood around talking to each other. As the two of them stepped around outstretched feet, some of the guests stopped in mid-sentence to stare at the visitor who gave them a businesslike smile. Cold candles. I wonder what Mama’s told them about me, she thought.

Roda led Hope to the archway of the dining room and grabbed an extra folding chair. “Just have a seat for a little while. We’re about to finish up.” Then she walked up to the linen-covered folding table centered in front of the picture window and rapped on it with her knuckles, making three stubby pencils bounce like jumping beans. “Shall we continue now?”

Most heads returned from the daughter to the mother.

“For our last item, Morgana wishes to bring something to our attention. Morgana, please come up here and speak.”

A lanky woman, younger and wealthier than any of the others present, came out from behind a fig plant and stood beside the hostess. Roda placed a hand on her shoulder and announced to the listeners, “This is Morgana Fye, niece of our deceased founder, Abellina Fye, and sole heiress to her estate. Go ahead, Morgana.”

The tall woman nodded at Roda with confidence, then addressed the others. “I bring to you a pressing problem. It’s the increasing number of changes in laws that are being made to accommodate ginners. It started, you might recall, many years ago when ginners were given driver licenses. Then it invaded other professions so that now ginners can get state-certified or licensed in any number of professions, including hairdressers, plumbers, masons and CPAs. In God’s name, we must stop this trend and reverse what has happened. We need to open dialogues with state officials and representatives. Even more importantly we need to get ourselves elected to the city councils all across the state like I have done here in Flat Point and as Roda is doing here in the next election.”

Hope fidgeted in her chair, impatient with a discussion she had no interest in. Her thoughts darted about from rehearsing things she wanted to tell her mother to pondering the silly quirks of the other guests.

One person in particular caught her attention. It might have been his balding head laced with strands of coarse black hair that set him apart. Or his wrinkled plaid shirt struggling to stay buttoned across a balloon belly. Or the patchy stubble on his paper mache face. All of the features put together said that this middle aged man did not fit in with the others. As she watched his head bobbed like drift wood on a pond, she concluded he was a seedy nobody.

Whoops. She had looked at him once too often and now he was on his way over. She turned away. She felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned back with eyes half shut.

“Are you a new member?” he asked sitting down next to her.

Hope rocked backwards as the repulsive odor of digested alcohol blew by with his question. She gave him a snarl from several inches farther back. “Ah… no. Just visiting.”

“My name is Jax Tairbull.” His head seemed to bob for no reason. “My real name was Ajax… after some Greek hero… I don’t know who. Now they just call me Jax.” He studied her for two bobs of the head. “Ya wantta go out fer lunch after the meeting?”

“Not really.” She looked in the opposite direction. “Roda and I have to get reacquainted.”

“Okay,” he said with a pat on her knee. “How ’bout tomorrow?”

She stiffened her chin and pulled her knee out from under his hand. “I’m afraid not, big guy. Now please leave my life.”

“Ya can’t say no to Jax.” He reached to put an arm around her waist.



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— 91 —

She twisted and stood up. “Get your pathetic paws off me.” She went to the corner by the grandfather clock.

Ogling eyes followed her.

“Meeting adjourned,” shouted Roda with a loud rap on the card table. People began standing up and walking toward the front door.

Jax got up and walked a crooked line toward Hope. “Ya know what?”

She side-stepped away. “Beat it, booger, or I’ll cast a spell on you.”

“But wur juss now gettin’ acquainted.”

Roda, half turned bidding goodbye to the guests, made her way across the living room to Hope and Jax.

“Ah, Roda,” he exhaled while shifting his weight to disguise a momentary loss of balance. “Your pretty pal won’t go out with me. Maybe you can tell her what a prince I am.”

Roda glared at Jax. “That pretty pal, Mr. Tairbull, happens to be my daughter.”

“Scooze me. I didn’t know.” He fumbled with the buttons on his shirt, his body moving as if he were standing in a small boat. He peeked sideways at Hope to finish a lustful thought, then, with a ray of insight, remarked, “Say, yur Hope, aren’t cha? Yur the one Roda talks about. Ya go out with the ginner maker. Hey, ya know, yur mama sez some nasty things ’bout cha.”

Eyes of mother and daughter met like magnets.

“Like what?” asked Hope.

“Sez yur a ginner lover.”

Roda stepped between them. “I want you to go now.” She nudged him toward the front door.

Jax walked toward the exit, head craned backwards. “Sez ya sleeps with ginners.”

Hope lifted her eyes and dropped her mouth.

“Jax, I did not.” Roda gave him a push. “Now get the hell out of here. Go home.”

When he left, Roda slammed the door. She returned to Hope. “He’s drunk. I said some things awhile ago that I shouldn’t have. I was upset when you came back from Chicago and went directly to the Wyman’s place. But I never said you slept with ginners.”

Hope stepped away, toward the flowered love seat. Roda followed. They sat together at opposite ends and waited for the other to speak.

A pencil rolled off the table and rattled on the floor.

“Mama, I didn’t want to hurt you. But… ” She gazed at the red-haired old woman who, all of a sudden, looked like her mother—the mother of her childhood. Sparkling, quick eyes radiating warmth. Soft loving smile exuding intangible comfort. “Never mind, Mama. It’s good to be home. Are you sure it’ll be all right for me to stay here? I mean, I don’t want to buzz your beehive or anything.”

Tears came to Roda’s eyes. “Oh, Hope. I miss you. I love you so much.” She leaned over and gave her a hug.

“Mama, I love you, too.” Hope hugged her back.

Roda wiped her eyes, smearing her eye makeup, and sat straight again. “I’m going to love your company. About all I do nowadays is lobby for HARP and go to meetings. We’re getting ready for the next city election, backing anti-ginner candidates.”

“Oh, Mama. You spend too much time on that. Genues aren’t that bad. Really. While I was staying with Adam, I became kind of used to them.” She thought of her encounters with Murl. “Sometimes they’re as cute as curtains.”

“Hope,” Roda gasped. “Don’t talk like that. They’re nothing but wires and plastic. I resent the way some people endow them with life-like characteristics… like cute.”

“They do act almost human. It’s only natural to compare them to people.”

Roda raised her arms. “That’s what I hate, Hope. This notion that they are on a par with us. Don’t you understand? We’re being tricked into forsaking humankind’s destiny because of these green robots. Haven’t I taught you how humanity and culture are the only purposes, the only realities?”

“Mama, I’m not forsaking anything.” She punched the seat cushion. “I have no flares to fire. I’m not advocating anything. But I don’t understand why you hate them so much. You know, you had me hating them when I was a kid… and for the longest time. Then I found out it was just prejudice.”

Roda stood and stared down at Hope. “Prejudice? See, you’re doing it again. You’re making it sound like those things are a race of people. Besides, I don’t hate machines. I hate people who like ginners. I hate people who don’t see the threat.”



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— 92 —

Hope stood also, her face twisted with indignation. “Oh, you’re saying you hate me.”

“I… I hate…” Roda clenched her fists by her side. “I hate you when you run around with the Wyman kid.”

“I’ll run around with the Wyman kid whenever I like.” She thrust her face at her mother. “And that kid is over forty. And so am I. So stop buzzing my beehive.”

Roda raised her head to the ceiling. “Why can’t you be like… like the child I never had!” The rebuke seemed to ricochet in the stony silence that followed.

The grandfather clock chimed the hour.

Hope glared at the pale, cold face of a stranger standing next to her. It looked nothing like the face she saw each morning in the mirror. All at once she saw wrinkles and pores filled with silly powder, red lips bent with anger, eyes chilled with hate, and hair dyed a lurid shade of red-orange. These were not the memories of love, she thought. Who is this woman?

“You’re not my mother,” she blurted out. “You never were. I can’t ever remember loving you.” The words seemed to echo in the chasm that opened between them.

Roda stomped her foot. “You damn brat! You aren’t my daughter.” She threw a small pillow at Hope. “Faith was my daughter—my only daughter—my only child!”

“What! You still call that damn chimp your daughter? I should have known. You’re still as crazy as a crumpled crankshaft.”

“Get out, you gypsy brat! Get out of my house! I hate you!”

Hope stomped to the front door and yanked it open. “I hate you too!” She slammed the door behind her.

——

“Are you ready to go?” Murl called out to Versum from the foyer of the Wyman manor. It was mid afternoon and the two genues were alone in the house. Each had completed his business responsibilities for the day.

“Yes, I’ll be right there. I must check out with the office.”

Murl paced by the front door, waiting for him, thinking about what they might see when they got to the south end of town.

“Okay, I’m ready,” said Versum walking into the foyer.

The front door opened and Hope shuffled in, limp and lethargic.

“Hi, guys,” she said with no energy. She went into the living room and slumped into the nearest chair.

Murl followed her. “Hello, Hope. You look as if something is wrong. Can I help you in any way?”

“Oh, I’m okay. A little depressed.” She kicked off her shoes. “I had a fight with my mother. Then I went shopping just to perk myself up. I bought myself a new lucky charm. Five gold circles interlocked.” She jumped up, strutted to the genues, and flaunted the charm hanging on a chain around her neck. “See, isn’t it as sharp as slivers?”

“Yes, quite pretty,” said Murl. He looked at Versum. “Versum, what do you say?”

“Very nice,” the genue replied from his random courtesy bank.

“But it didn’t do any good. I still feel like a dog in a ditch.”

“Because you had a disagreement with your mother?” asked Murl. “Would I be intruding if I asked about what?”

Hope turned and wandered back to the chair. “Oh, you wouldn’t understand. It all has to do with people’s feelings. About me loving Adam, about my mama not loving me, about my not knowing if I love her.”

Murl nodded. “Yes, I see. That subject again. I’ve grappled with that human response off and on for almost ten years and still I do not grasp it. I wish I could help you.”

“Me too,” echoed Versum. “Would it help your depressed state if we told you we care for you?” His readings on human psychology were showing.

“Oh, you guys are sweet,” Hope swooned as she went to Versum and gave him a gentle hug, then Murl. She knew she was hugging machines. But in her emotional state she did not care; it was easy to pretend they were alive. She stared at the green plastic faces. “You two are certainly easier to get along with than most people.”

“Thank you, Hope,” replied Murl. “Now if there is nothing we can do for you, Versum and I are about to go on an excursion.”

“Really?” remarked Hope. “Where are you going?”



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— 93 —

“We are going to the south end of town to see the poor living conditions of the people there, and to see if we can do something for them,” explained Versum.

“Gee, that’s nice of you guys. But I really don’t think you two ought to go there alone. It might be dangerous.”

“I think we’ll be all right. We intend no harm and we must explore that environment.”

“I really am worried about you,” said Hope. She thought a moment. “Say, why don’t I go with you? Nobody would do anything to you with a woman tagging along. And they wouldn’t harm me because of my two genue companions.”

The genues looked at each other.

Murl spoke. “I guess it would be okay. If you don’t mind going, we wouldn’t mind having you along.”

“Okay, bouquet. Let me get my shoes on.”

*    *    *

The pleasant Indian summer day was nurture for nostalgia. The sky was a blue cloth. Plump geese winged overhead in formation and honked while a breeze tickled the red maples, and crisp leaves giggled in casual zephyrs that skated across the street.

Murl drove while Versum studied the pleasant scenes. Hope, in the back seat, gazed up through the open roof.

As they wended their way to the south side of town, the sky and landscape seemed to wilt, and when they crossed the railroad tracks the scenery turned somber. The heavens took on a cloak of grungy clouds. Scrawny crows swooped at random and cawed while gusts wheezed through naked elms, and litter grumbled in dust devils that lurched along the gutters.

The visitors stared at the changing scene. The buildings and houses became more neglected, the streets filthier and the vegetation sparser. To Hope, the environment was depressing. To the two genues, the territory was alien.

Murl pulled the car up to a crumbling curb. He looked at Versum. “I would venture that this is the place Mirgas was referring to. I would like to walk the streets so that we might talk to some of the people and perhaps go into some of the shops.” He opened his door and got out.

“As you wish,” replied Versum following Murl’s lead.

“I’m not staying here alone,” Hope called from the back seat. Versum gave her a hand.

The three uninvited visitors walked to the corner and stopped beneath the street sign. Versum read it aloud, “South Fork Road.” Only for Murl did those words have meaning.

There was no traffic at all, so Murl decided it would be best to walk down the middle of the street—to get a balanced perspective of both sides, and to allow the maximum margin of safety in case they had to retreat. He took the first steps into the street. Versum followed one pace behind with Hope behind him. The threesome stepped slowly along the cracked and pocked pavement gawking at deformed autos abandoned along the broken curb and dilapidated dwellings with desert yards of weeds and trash. Dust and litter kicked up by snippets of wind seemed to be all that moved along the narrow street. A few skinny, old people, dressed in shabby clothes and glum faces, sat idly on rotting benches, rusted yard chairs and broken porch steps.

The trio scanned the sad scene from side to side as they continued to walk down the center of South Fork Road. A bent-over man in a tattered suit crossed several yards in front of them, stopped to wave his cane at them, added a curse, then passed out of sight between two tar-papered houses.

A seedy codger stepped out from behind a stripped car and held up a fist at the two genues an arm’s reach away. “Rabbits best keep out of the corn. Rabbits best keep out of the corn. Rabbits best…”

The genues stopped and Hope bumped into the back of Versum.

“He sounds like he is in need of repair,” Murl said.

The old man babbled on. “The sun is short. I see lights. I see lights. Some of them will eat the lights. Gimme, gimme, gimme.”

Murl stepped around the old man and Versum followed. Hope took a few quick paces and took Murl’s hand. “The man’s mind is minced. Let’s just keep going. He won’t bother us.”

Versum stepped alongside of Hope. “I have read of human brains becoming deranged, but I have never actually witnessed the results. It amazes me. It is as if his ideator loops were damaged. Aren’t there chemicals or drugs that will fix this one?”

“Sure,” replied Hope. “But not around here.”



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— 94 —

They arrived at a cross street and several empty corner stores. Murl scanned each of them and brought his full attention to one that had the words “Kwik Grocery” painted across its large cracked front window. Beneath it was another sign that read “No ginners allowed.” The entrance had no door on its hinges and the dark, obscure interior aroused Murl’s curiosity. The genue strode through the doorway and disappeared into the shadows. Versum followed and also disappeared. Hope, standing alone, paused only briefly before she went into the store after them.

A vile stench caused Hope to reel back to the doorway. She turned her head, gasped, “That’s horrible. I can’t go in there.”

To Murl and Versum the odor was only sensory information. They peered through the dim light and saw a barren store with empty counters and shelves strung together by nets of cobwebs. Further in the obscurity, in the far corner, were what looked like two human forms. Murl stepped closer; Versum followed and gaped over his shoulder. The genues gazed upon two decaying bodies—one lying on the floor with a spoon in one hand and an opened can of dog food in the other—the second, a bag of bones, in a wheelchair.

“What has happened here, Murl?” Versum asked.

“I don’t know.” He called out to the doorway, “Hope, can you tell us what this means.”

Hope took a deep breath, grabbed her nose and stepped into the store. She took no more than a three-second look and vaulted back out the doorway to the sidewalk. She coughed and gagged.

Murl and Versum came out into the daylight to her side. “What is it?” they asked simultaneously.

She sighed. “Just a couple of poor old prunes. The man on the floor must’ve been feeding the woman in the wheelchair. Maybe he had a heart attack, then maybe she starved.” She looked at the genues for signs of understanding but saw none. “You guys want to continue this adventure?”

“Strange,” Murl mused. “On the one hand we see a situation of one human tending to another with great care, yet, on the other, we see both dying from neglect by so many around them.”

When Hope only shrugged her shoulders, unable to give him the logic he sought, Murl remarked, “Let us go a bit further.” He turned and began crossing the street.

Hope and Versum followed. They proceeded further down South Fork Road passing more cheerless houses and ruined shops. A bony old man lay on the curb groaning. A stooped woman picked dandelion leaves and placed them in a scarred plastic pail hanging from her arm. Another decrepit figure sitting on a tree stump gnawed on the bones of a small carcass, and when he saw the genues, picked up a rock and threw it at them. It bounced at their feet sending up a puff of dust. A wrinkled hag standing on a rickety porch turned and hid behind a torn screen door.

At the next corner they stopped at a stretch of vacant land being reclaimed by a wilderness of weeds. Halfway down the block a blackened chimney rose up like a monument from the red sumac bushes that covered the charred ruins it belonged to. Yet, to Murl, there was something familiar about the setting—something that aroused memories. He recalled pictures of this surrounding, pictures seen the day Micael died.

“That must have been 2153 South Fork Road,” he said. The associated thoughts flooded his ideator loops, thoughts of being knocked down and yelled at by Adam, of Hope embracing him, trying to explain love to him, of the start of a conundrum with which he still struggled. Hope and Versum said nothing. They just stood and waited for Murl to either say something else or to lead them on in their excursion of the sad street. The sound of sandy footsteps, then a harsh voice interrupted the silent memorial.

“Well, howdy, Hope.”

Startled, she turned and saw Jax Tairbull standing within arm’s length of her. He was wearing the same clothes he had on at the HARP meeting, and they were just as disheveled and dirty. Standing beside him were two other middle-aged men and a wrinkled woman dressed in varying dusty tones. One of the men had long silvery hair reaching to his shoulders; the other wore a murky brown cowboy hat. The woman, her face a riot of wrinkles, chewed on a white tangle of hair. The man with the cowboy hat cradled an ax in his arms. Only Jax was smiling. It was an acid smile.

The genues studied the four figures.

“So you really are a ginner lover,” Jax said as he tried to steady his intoxicated stance.

“Jax,” Hope yapped. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Jax took a step toward Hope and with a swimming finger hooked the five-circle charm hanging from her neck. “What am I doing here? Tisk, tisk. I live here. You’re on my turdy turf now, lady.”

Hope knocked his hand away. “Just leave us alone. We’re here on a peace mission.”

“I can give you peace… and ecstasy.” His eyes were wet, like the sounds he made when he talked.

She held up her hands as if in surrender. “Okay, we’ll leave. Just don’t start any trouble.”

“You can’t leave,” Jax replied. “Somebody stole the wheels off your snazzy mo-beel.”



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— 95 —

Hope looked down the street at the car they had come in. Sure enough, it sat on its axles. “Why you smelly blob of snake spit,” she seethed.

“Watch your language, sweet missy.” He grabbed her hair and pulled her head to one side.

Murl and Versum stood watching, unsure of what was transpiring. They waited for Hope to instruct them. Instead Hope brought up a knee into Jax’s groin. He instantly released her and doubled up on the ground at her feet. The others took a step toward her but stopped as she kicked out at them.

The silver-haired man took a step away from Hope toward Versum and Murl. His chin went up and his eyes down. “What would ginners be doing around here?”

“We have come to see if genues can help the people of this neighborhood,” Versum said in an even tone.

The old woman looked at Jax on the ground, then cackled, “Help? Who ya think you’re kiddin’? We know ya want ta take over the world.”

The man with the cowboy hat pushed the axe head against Versum’s chest. “You ginners took our jobs… wrecked our lives. Now we got to eat the weeds in our yards. If we’re lucky, we get a stray cat or dog. We got no money today, we got no money tomorrow. Nothing, ever. You did this. And you say you want to help?”

“That’s not true,” Versum blurted out as he stepped back. “Genues produce food for humans. We do your labor to make your life easier.”

“Not ours. Just the corporations and the rich folks,” the silver-haired man replied. “Go do them their stuff. We don’t want you here.”

Murl moved in front of Versum. “I’m sorry. We mean no harm. We truly want to help. We can see to it that food is brought here. We can have genues come to clean your streets and homes.”

Jax, kneeling on the ground, growled, “Get ’um, Moe. Ax ’um good.”

The man with the ax took courage from the prodding. “You must be pretty stupid to bring those genues here, lady.” The ax head rose up from the cowboy’s arms. “Didn’t nobody tell you we don’t like ginners around here? We’re gonna have to unescort you.”

Hope held out her hand. “Don’t hurt them. They haven’t done anything.”

Murl took one step backwards and bumped into Versum. “I’m sorry. We will leave, if that will suit you.”

“Not in one piece, you won’t!” The man in the cowboy hat raised the ax in the air.

Hope shouted, “Don’t!”

Murl saw the threat of the raised ax and tried to take another step backwards, but again bumped into Versum. It was too late. The steel wedge came down and tore into Murl’s chest. He fell to the ground, his eyes glued to the imbedded ax. Murl’s vision turned into discrete square pixels that grew fewer in number and larger in size until all detail was lost to one huge square of light. His photo-electric consciousness lost its centricity and faded from its hardware.

Hope screamed, then pulled the ax from Murl’s chest. She swung wildly at the strangers. They ran, hobbled or limped in different directions. Jax crawled a few steps, then got up and loped down the street.

“Murl,” Hope called to the fallen genue as she dropped the ax and bent over him.

Versum stooped down also. “Murl.”

He did not answer.

Versum and Hope stared at the sparkles of light glinting through the ruptured green skin of Murl’s chest. They gazed at the hundreds of thin strands of photon pipes wiggling in his wound. Their severed ends radiated points of coherent light that began to flicker at random, then, like candles in the wind, they died.

*    *    *

“Murl, answer me.”

The words broke into the nihility that had been Murl’s existence for a stretch of time he could not measure. And now—where was he? Was this the prior life? Or a new one? What was the last memory? A picture of a falling ax that seemed like a mental mirage. Then oblivion. Now a voice.

“Murl, can your hear me?” It was Adam’s voice.

“Yes, I can hear you,” he managed. Sight came to him and he began to sort out his surroundings. He was upright in a support rack with cables coming out of his ear. This was the genue plant. A repair station. Adam, in a shiny blue shirt, and Versum, green as always, standing before him, and Hope looking over their shoulders. “What has happened? I was standing before some angry people. And now I am here. Time has disappeared.”



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— 96 —

“You were immobilized,” explained Adam. “Rather completely, I must say. You suffered extensive photon pipe severing as well as massive disruption of motor control. Basically you were killed. Fortunately a trickle current kept your memory banks from going to ground state.”

Versum chimed in. “The man with the cowboy hat hit you with an ax. Hope took that ax from your chest and scared the people away. I called for help on my GenLink and Adam came and brought you here for repairs.”

Adam grabbed Murl’s hand and squeezed the fingers. “You were dead for almost two days. We had to do major surgery, and I gotta tell you, those repairs were rather difficult.”

Murl tried to relive the episode but the scenes came to an abrupt end. “But then the void. No memories after the ax fell. It’s as if I never was. There was nothing—no thought, no sensing, no memories. That empty space in my life was of nonexistence. It is utterly bewildering.”

“I’m sure it was.” Adam raised and lowered Murl’s arm several times and checked the monitor. “People experience the same thing when they get knocked out. Some people think the state of temporary amnesia is a taste of what death is like.”

“Death,” repeated Murl. He groped with the concept, tried to understand it as the nothingness he had just experienced instead of the inconsequential conclusion to life he had accepted. Not being? He did not like the idea. He did not want to have memories missing, experiencing stopped. Being alive now had a contrast. If that was a taste of death, he did not want to die. A revelation. “I don’t want to die,” he proclaimed.

Adam was astonished by the remark. “The will to live. You care about your existence.”

“Yes,” Murl said aloud to himself. “I care about my being. I…” Does the word fit? “…love my being.” Was this the notion he had been struggling with all these years? Was this the human quality he was searching for? Almost. Not quite. Why not? But it was a start. Something he was glad he had discovered. Then aloud he announced, “Something else to teach the others.”

From the floor came strange sounds. “Yap, yap.”

“What is that sound?” asked Murl, straining to look down from his vertical bed.

Versum bent over and picked up a shaggy haired puppy. “This is Seventeen. It was Adam’s surprise for me.”

“Yes,” confirmed Adam. “I got Versum a puppy. I think it’s very important for genues to cultivate human concerns, to develop an appreciation of and concern for biological life. That’s why I also want Versum to tend the garden at home when he has time. You did, Murl. And Raffy did. I think it broadened your perspective of life and your appreciation for living things.”

“I hope you find your pet an interesting experience, Versum,” Murl said. “But why did you name it Seventeen?”

“I didn’t want to give it a genue name, and I didn’t want to give it a human one, so I picked Seventeen—a fine prime number.”

“That’s actually only its nickname,” Hope said with a straight face. “It’s real name is six plus eleven.”

“Really?”.

Adam laughed, “She’s teasing you, Murl.” He pulled the cable from Murl’s ear. “When are you going to tell your friends of your recovery?”

Murl stepped off the repair rack. “I’ll go and tell them right now, if that is okay with you.”

Adam gave him a sheepish smile. “Why don’t you use your GenLink?”

“My what?”

“Your internal radio. Since we had your chest wide open I took the liberty of upgrading you.”

Murl could only respond with a phrase he had heard Adam use many years ago when he wanted to express utter satisfaction. “Hot dog.”


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