Melissa Destiny

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Chapter 4.1

"Where to?" Melissa asked.

Lee took a deep breath. His hands were shaking. "Let's go to Chin's. I want to show him this weapon and see if he can tell us anything about it. Want me to drive?"

"I'd rather not stop for a while," Melissa answered. "Besides, I don't mind. Suky's been doing most of the driving lately. You'll just have to tell me which way to go."

"Go left under the freeway when you get to it."



"Do you think we should call Chin first?"

"He won't mind. He's been wanting to get together and talk about some new stuff for the Comp-The anyway."

"But what if they're there? If they knew where to find you then maybe they'll go to Chin's too."

"Good idea," Lee said. He took out his phone and rang Chin. Melissa eyed the rear view nervously as they came to the stop light at the access road. But there were no men in star suits. The light turned green and the Jalapeno sportlet swept quickly through the intersection and under the freeway.

"Take the next ramp after this one," Lee said.

"Was he there?"

"Yeah, he was. He's definitely ready to talk Comp-The. I'll tell him about the rest when we get there. Shit, what am I going to do? I can't go home now."

"No. I'm really sorry, Lee. I don't know what's going on, either."

"It's okay. I still think we need to call the police, though."

Melissa considered it. "Maybe," she said. "Let's at least see what Chin has to say first."


"So," Melissa said, "what's he all hot and bothered about?"

"He's been studying teletransportation," Lee answered. "There's been a lot of controversy about it and Chin thinks it might turn out to be the perfect topic for the Comp-The."

"What is it?"

"It's a way to transport people or objects instantaneously, the same way you'd transport data. More or less instantaneously. It is just transporting data, as far as I'm concerned."

"They can do that?"

"It's coming out in the next few years. Camhurst has been involved in it, actually. They have it pretty much ironed out, but what they're looking at now is how to market it so people aren't scared of it."

"Why would they be scared?" Melissa asked.

"Well, what happens is that you get in this box and it basically dismantles your body atom by atom and creates a code that represents you. Then it sends the code to wherever you want to go and the receiving box at that site reconstructs your body based on that code."

"Oh, like Star Trek."


"So people are afraid their code will get lost or screwed up or something?"

"That's one possibility, but no one thinks it will be much of a concern. The chances of that happening are near zero compared to the chances of a car wreck or a plane crash."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem is that they're not actually transporting you. They're transporting a code that represents you and then recreating a new you. See what I mean?"

"Not really."

"Your body is destroyed in the process. The new body that's created at the destination site is entirely composed of different atoms."

"But it's exactly the same?"

"Yeah. It's the same, but the concern is that people will feel like it's not really them. It's just a copy of them. In a way it's like if you step into this box, you die and someone creates a replica of you."

"What's the difference?" Melissa said. "It's exactly the same."

"But is it you?" Lee answered. "Look at it this way. The way it works now, they have to destroy your body to create the code. What if they didn't? What if they could create the code just by scanning you in some way? You follow me?"


"They create the code, then let's say they kill you. They shoot you and dump your body in a hole, then they send the code to the destination site and there you have it. A new you. But the old you is still rotting in the ground. Would you consider that transportation?"

"No, I guess not. But that's not what happens."

"But how is it any different? Essentially it's the same. Your body is destroyed and a copy is created. The fact that there are no tangible remains of your original body is beside the point."

"Don't all the atoms in your body replace themselves every so often anyway?"

"That's how they're probably going to market it. They're going to spin it like a sub-cellular makeover. Accelerated rejuvenation is what they're calling it at this point. Of course it makes absolutely no sense. There's no rejuvenation involved with the replacement of atoms, otherwise we'd all be getting younger all the time."

"Why don't we?"

"Cells make mistakes when they replicate. Those mistakes are preserved at that level even though the atoms are new."

"Shit," Melissa said. "Well, anyway, even if there's no rejuvenation, isn't it the same thing? If your atoms are always getting replaced and this is just doing it all at once, what's the difference?"

Lee sighed. "It's hard to define. Some people think there is a difference. I think of it in terms of the soul. What happens to your soul when your body is destroyed all at once in the teletransporter? Where does it go? Does it come back into the new body?"

Melissa shook her head. "Lee, you don't believe in all of that."

"I don't know. Not any more, I guess. You could think of it the way some of the film purists used to think of film as opposed to digital. They called it the erotics of film. The copy was touched by the original, the next copy was touched by the copy that was touched by the original, and so on. There was sort of an organic chain. Same way with replacement of atoms in the body through the natural process."

"It sounds like that's slicing it pretty thin."

"The point is, maybe the concept isn't literal like the so-called immortal soul, but at least it's a concept that stands for some kind of stable identity. I mean, you know once they have this code they can create any number of copies. They could send the data to a hundred different planets and make a hundred different Melissas if you wanted them to. So which one would be you, then? Which one's experiences would you be having?"

"Will they do that, do you think?"

"No way. What would that do to the message that they're providing transportation? It shows that they're not providing transportation. They're providing destruction and replication."

"I wonder what it would feel like to be in a hundred places at once?" Melissa said.

"You're missing the point, Mel."

"No, I get it. I get it. I'm just saying I wonder what it would be like if it was possible."

"I don't know. Actually there is one guy who says that if they created two copies in different places at the same time, you would have the experience of being in two places, but only for an instant until the atomic structures began to diverge because of environmental factors. He's considered kind of a nut, though. He never explains how the brain would process the experience in any meaningful way."

"Interesting," Melissa said.

"Chin can tell you more about it if you want."

"That's okay. I think I have enough to keep me awake for at least a few weeks."

Lee laughed. "Yeah. All I know is that I'm staying away from those boxes. I'd rather get frozen and make the trip the old-fashioned way."

"Oh, I know!" Melissa said with mock seriousness. "And when was the last time you popped over to another planet again, Lee?"

"Shut up. Go ahead and take this exit."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Chapter 3.4

Lee froze with his hand on the doorknob. A wave of fear rushed through his body, leaving him light-headed. It was the same man from Goode Company, the one they had seen kill all those people.

Before Lee knew what was happening, the man planted his foot in the doorway and withdrew the two evil metal pieces from his belt. He quickly began fitting them together, just as he had the night before. Lee had only seconds to react. Without thinking, he let go of the doorknob and reached under his shirttail to take the hammer from his waistband. The man looked at him quizically as Lee raised the hammer. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

Lee brought the hammer down as hard as he could on the man's wrist. There was an ugly thud, followed by a shriek of pain and surprise from the star-suit man. One of the metal pieces fell to the floor. Lee immediately kicked it across the room, where it bounced off the wall and fell to rest in a pile of laundry.

"Melissa!" Lee shouted. He backed quickly toward the couch where she was sleeping. He kept one eye on the intruder, who was doubled over with his head between his knees, cradling his shattered wrist. Lee could hear murmurs of rage as the man rocked back and forth on his feet.

"Melissa!" Lee barked again. She was a heavy sleeper, he remembered, switching the hammer to his left hand. He grabbed her shoulder and shook violently. "Mel! Wake up!"

Melissa rolled onto her back and stretched, a contented smile on her face. When she opened her eyes, Lee was standing with the hammer in the air, breathing fast. She frowned and shook her head. "Wha...?"

Lee grabbed her by the hand and pulled her off the couch. He dragged her halfway through the kitchen and then stopped, remembering. Melissa looked back and saw the assassin the doorway. She screamed, which seemed to rouse him from his daze. Lee pushed Melissa toward the back door. "Get the keys. They're in the bowl! Go!"

Lee ran around the couch and back toward the front door as Melissa watched, horrified. The strange man looked up at Lee, his face red and streaked with tears. "Go!" Lee yelled over his shoulder, sensing that Melissa hadn't moved. Lee reached the laundry pile and dropped to his knees, feeling around, rummaging frantically through the pile of clothes. He felt the metal piece and jumped to his feet.

The man straightened up and lunged toward him, growling. Lee rounded the sofa and broke into a run.

Melissa had left the back door open for him. He sprinted through the kitchen, setting the whisky bottles jingling on the bread rack. He flew out the door and into the driveway without touching the steps and scrambled over to the Jalapeno. Melissa was waiting in the driver's seat.

Lee opened the passenger door and threw himself in. "Go!" he panted. Melissa was already in reverse. She stepped on the gas as Lee grabbed for the door and pulled it shut.

They reached the front of the house just in time to see the Blue Star Man emerging from the front door. He rushed down the steps as Melissa backed into the street.

"Hurryyy..." Lee muttered. Melissa threw the car into gear as the man bolted across the lawn toward them. She stomped the accelerator. With a staccato squeal of the tires, they were off.

Lee looked back over his shoulder as his house fell away behind them. The man stood by the curb, watching, until they were out of sight.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Chapter 3.3

When Melissa had fallen asleep on the couch, Lee closed the empty pizza box and moved it from the carpet onto one of the filing-cabinets that served as his end-tables. He watched Melissa breathe for a minute, thought about how bad his headache was, picked up his scotch-glass and scotch-bottle and headed for his bedroom. It was only a few minutes after eight, but Lee felt like he’d been up for days. He poured another scotch, figuring it would raise his blood sugar a little, give him a little more pep, and hopefully help with the headache. A Coke would be better for all those things, Lee thought, and then walked back to his kitchen, took a Coke from the fridge, and poured about a third of the can on top of his Scotch. It was a sacrilegious action, adding Coke to good Scotch, but on the other hand Chin was about to get here to return Lee’s car, and Lee wanted to tell him what had happened. Maybe Chin could make some sense of it. Chin was one of the world’s leading experts on randomness, and today’s events had seemed shockingly random, so maybe Chin could explain them. Of course, Lee thought, randomness and comprehensibility are unrelated topics; when I equate them I’m using language vaguely, like some moron would. The attack at the restaurant was incomprehensible, but there’s no reason to believe it was random. It was probably very intentional. And probably the intention was to kill Melissa. Unless it was some other intention, one that has nothing to do with her or me. Maybe the ZZ-Top dude wanted to kill someone else in the place. Lee was already walking back to the living room. If someone wanted to kill Melissa, he had to sit in there where she was, and he had to stay awake. But there was no way he could stop any kind of act of violence. Lee had no violent skills of any kind, and no defensive skills either.

Lee stopped in the kitchen again, got down on his knees and began searching in a low cupboard. Under some rags and out-dated phonebooks, he found a small red tool-chest, which he took out and opened. The closest thing to a weapon was a small hammer which he considered, making a slow practice swing to test how it felt in his hand, and then a faster swing. It could bust someone’s head, but it would work best if it was unexpected. Lee tucked the wooden handle into his pants; it was very uncomfortable next to his hip, but his dress-shirt, which was untucked, hung down over it to conceal it. It represented minimum security, but it was something.

Lee sat down in the living room and watched Melissa breathing for a few more minutes. She was very beautiful, in his opinion, and he realized that this was a new opinion, and that back when he had known her in college he had thought she was a little funny-looking. He had been more successful with women then, and he had considered Melissa one of his intellectual friends, like a boy, whereas the girls he liked to date were usually primarily interested in socializing, pets, recreational drug use, and self-presentation. Lee had never liked to mix his intellectual life with his sex-life. But now that he was out of college and worked on theological computing, he was broke, and the kind of girls he had dated then were not interested in him now. That kind of girls wanted men with good jobs and good bank-accounts, which meant they wanted conformists, whether or not they realized it. Lee had never had anything against social conformity; it had just never occurred to him that due to his intellectual non-conformity, he would be unable to afford the lifestyle he was planning on.

Of course, Chin was a greater scientist than Lee; it was Chin’s analysis of the distinction between theoretical randomness and real-world simulations of randomness that made Lee’s work possible. The architecture of Lee’s Computerized Theologian was an outgrowth of Chin’s theory that true randomness only happens on the sub-atomic level. For example, when a certain electron can either remain in orbit around a nucleus or else jump out of that orbit, then whether it stays or goes is truly random, according to Chin. But in the visible world, the world of human objects, no event was as random as that. The rolling of a die depended on exactly how much erosion had occurred at each of its four corners, on the exact aerodynamics of the curvature of each of its six sides. Of course, Chin would say, none of the six sides are equally flat. Some are a little more concave, some are a little more convex. The best the die can do for you is to produce an imitation or simulation of randomness. As for computers, nothing they do is random; even when a computer produces a “random” number it is only performing an algorithm, the results of which can be predicted in advance, if one cares to do so. The common wisdom was that this was a limitation of computers, but when Chin realized that all “larger-than-sub-atomic random events” (a phrase that Chin says so often that he has shortened it to LREs, a term that quickly mutated into “Larrys”), when Chin realized that all “Larrys” only imitated randomness, he inaugurated a new research area: research into how close to true randomness each imitation of randomness is. The key to the Comp-The’s special architecture was that, if it worked correctly, some parts of its network would imitate randomness with 70% effectiveness, whereas other parts would imitate randomness with 60% or 80% effectiveness, creating internal differentials that created a “randomness equivalence metabolism.” This internal disequilibrium between degrees of pseudo-randomness created tensions that circulated information around the Comp The’s network. Without Chin, Lee could never have imagined creating something so bizarre, something that would either turn out to open doors in Artificial Intelligence or (just as likely) be a bizarre novelty item, one of those strange dead-ending footnotes that amuse historians of science.

There was a knock on the door. That must be Chin, Lee thought. He strolled to the door and looked through the peephole.

There was a man standing in front of Lee’s door wearing a blue uniform with silver stars on it that slowly grew and shrank. . .


Chapter 3.2

Suky reactivated in a zone with no compatible network access. His internal modems dialed and dialed (retrying once every three seconds) but every signal coming back Suky’s way was unintelligible gibberish. What kind of gibberish is it?, was the obvious question. Suky did not exactly think this question, because of course machines can’t think, but his system had been pre-programmed to analyze incompatible transmissions. Some of the signals coming in seemed like entertainment feeds, since they were on or near the wavelengths used for TV and radio, but Suky could not convert them into sound or image files. They were like files that had been corrupted, either by a virus or an irretrievable hard-drive error. The difference was that they were everywhere; the air-waves were full of them. It was not possible that all transmissions in Texas had been corrupted by a virus at once; a virus that acted that quickly would have to be delivered as part of the .gov master feed, and a virus delivered that way would certainly have infected Suky too. So what had happened?, was the obvious question.

Suky had no pre-programming to help him deal with the fact that he was on another planet.

Suky’s secret rip-saw attachment was still extruded. Blood and bits of bone were caught within the metal teeth, and it was dripping. The attachment could be not pulled back into Suky’s torso until it had been cleaned properly, so that was Suky’s first order of business. Suky removed a silver scouring cloth and dampened it with a powerful acid from a spray fixture in his left palm; the acid would melt away the skin, bone, and gristle caught in his rip-saw, without damaging the metal, and then in thirty seconds the acid would biodegrade into water and evaporate, leaving no hazardous residue. While Suky cleansed himself, his internal modems continued to dial and dial unsuccessfully. Suky could not stop trying until he had reached the government. “Suitcase” model ChauffaBots had never been intended for any degree of unsupervised operation, and this was particularly true in Suky’s case due to the secret “above-manual” customizations that had been performed on him right before he was given to Melissa Destiny. Suky did not know why he had been equipped with so many powerful (and possibly illegal) weapons systems and data management software apps, but he knew that Melissa was an especially important person, one of the most important people in the world according to his programming. Of course, if it was a question of protecting either Melissa or the President, or if Melissa and one of the Military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff were under attack at the same time, Suky would choose to protect the President or General first. But Melissa took precedence over anyone else, even the Vice-President! If Melissa was in danger, the Vice-President could not depend on Suky for help. Luckily, the V-P had bodyguards of his own, probably even faster and stronger than Suky was.

Where was Melissa? As the rip-saw slid back into Suky’s chest, he began to look around him to locate Mel. Only eight seconds had passed since his reactivation; Suky had done the cleaning very quickly. It was a very high-level priority to keep his special customizations secret from everyone, including Melissa; that was why he had hidden the saw before beginning to look for her. He would have to be very careful not to touch her for the next twenty-five seconds, because any acid residues on his hands would take that long to finish breaking down and evaporating.

Suky was standing over a dead man wearing a blue suit with silver stars on it that grew and shrank slowly. The man had a long blond beard that reached down to the middle of his chest. The middle of his chest had been torn open and parts of different internal organs were lying around his body. The floor under them was a blue steel platform; where the platform ended, a gray concrete floor began. In that area of the room there were several huge computers; these computers were much larger than they needed to be, the sort of massive mainframes that IBM used to build for the government, all of which had been junked by the end of the miniaturization boom of the ‘80s, according to Suky’s tech-history database. There was also a round doorway that was the only exit from the room; beyond this was some sort of passageway or tunnel that initially sloped downward. The ceiling emitted a soft white light at 70 watts; the light came from all parts of the ceiling at once, and was obviously designed to be comfortable for human eyes. Whatever humans used this room obviously preferred it be somewhat dim, however, because the light was 19% dimmer than the standard-specification lighting used in government buildings and most businesses. In fact, the light was weak enough that workers could sue their management if they were required to engage in extensive typing or filing tasks in such an environment. Obviously, the people who maintained this installation had little respect for governmental authority; there was no reason other than arrogance to defy government standard-specifications. Or perhaps the room was a portion of a private residence, the owner of which did not have any domestic servants or other domestic employees?

More likely, considering the advanced yet outdated technology, the owners were some sort of non-conformist organization, possibly even terrorists.

There were no people. There were no windows. It was not the Goode Company barbecue restaurant. There were no recognizable .gov transmissions, and no comprehensible network access. This probably meant that Suky was not in America anymore. Suky’s analytic sub-routines therefore determined (incorrectly, as it turns out) that he had been inactive for an extended period, and had been moved to a foreign city while deactivated. However, the transmission activity around Suky did not fit the standard-specifications of any economic territory or stateless zone.

Suky needed to leave this installation, which might somehow by inhibiting signals from outside, in order to produce some sort of alternative data-sphere. The concept of another data-sphere hidden in some building, quarantined from the normal airwaves and unsupervised by any government, seemed unbearably treasonous to Suky. The government must be informed and this installation must be annihilated, ASAP! Furthermore, only by reconnecting to the normal data-sphere could Suky begin to properly search for Melissa; without network resources, he could not even know where to begin. Having realized that his impulse to find Melissa and his impulse to connect with the government were fundamentally the same impulse, Suky’s processors began to focus on how. Suky re-configured into his highest speed mode. His feet sprouted wheels and his legs shortened, lowering and turning his torso, so that it was parallel to the ground. Meanwhile his head slid backward to what would have been the middle of his back; in this position, the various scanners in Suky’s head could capture the most info about the environment around him, as he shot through it. Suky began to roll, at approximately 15 miles an hour, into the passageway that exited from the room. It had been 19 seconds since his re-activation, and the acid on his hands would still be corrosive for another 15 seconds.


Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Chapter 3.1

Melissa followed Lee up the steps, ready to catch him if he lost his balance. As soon as they were inside, he shuffled over to the couch and sprawled out on the cushions. Melissa brought him a glass of water and a bag of ice for his head.

"Here. Let me feel."

"Ow!" he said. Melissa could feel a large lump on his head.

"How are you doing?" she asked.

"Better. I'm better. I think I'm gonna be okay."

"Is there anything else I can get you?"


"Hmm...I don't know. I guess just one would be okay."

Melissa went to the bar and looked over the stock. There were about ten different Scotches and she had no idea what to pick. "What kind would you like, Lee?"

He was quiet for a few moments. Melissa began to worry that he'd fallen asleep. "Lee?"

"Yeah. I'm just thinking. Uh, let's say...Cragganmore."

"All righty."

She poured him a tiny splash and went to the freezer.

"No...Mel? That's okay. No ice."

Melissa handed him the drink, then sat down and began to cry.

"Melissa? Are you okay? What's the matter?"

"I don't know!" she sobbed. "It was just so..." She shuddered. "I can't stop thinking about all those people standing there like that. It was so horrible."

"I know."

"And we could have been one of them if it wasn't for Suky and now he's gone." She fell against Lee's shoulder. He gritted his teeth as a bolt of pain shot through his head, but he said nothing. He wrapped his arm around her neck and held her as she cried.

"I think I might like one of those, too." Melissa stood up and headed back to the bar, sniffling.

"As long as y-"

"No, no more for you, young man. We need to keep an eye on you and make sure you don't drift off."

"Well...why don't you tell me what happened, then? The last thing I remember was picking up my tray and then..."

"And then that guy with the beard started shooting people. You remember that?"

"I remember a weird-looking guy."

"It wasn't like any gun I've ever heard of. It didn't really make a noise. It froze those people when it hit them, and then they just...all the blood just gushed out of them. Have you ever heard of anything like that?"

"It doesn't sound like my daddy's shotgun."

"Ha ha. Well, it was like a pistol that he put together. And then Suky threw us on the floor and rushed at the guy, and there was this sound like a chainsaw and someone screaming. When I looked up, everything was over."

"Hm. I didn't know Suky had a chainsaw."

"Neither did I. I'll have to check the manual."

"Listen, Mel. Don't you think it's kind of strange that this happened while we were there?"


"Well, you went to Camhurst's and challenged him about that hologram thing, then he gave you those gift cards, right?"

"His lawyer did."

"Yeah. And then you went there and this happened?"

"So, what are you saying? Camhurst sent that guy to kill us?"

"Not both of us, I wouldn't think. Damn."

"Oh, just me!"

"I don't know, Mel."

"Then tell me this. Why didn't he shoot me first? Why did he shoot all those other people and give Suky the chance to save us?"

"I don't know. It could be they didn't send him there after us. Maybe they just knew he was going to be there. Maybe we weren't exactly where we were supposed to be. I'm trying to think if anything unusual happened that...the traffic jam! Remember that? We were delayed and delayed, and then finally we got through. Because we were standing in that exact spot at that exact time, the guy killed everyone else before he noticed us. They didn't count on that!"

"What do you mean where we were supposed to be?"

"I've got to get with Chin on this. We need to get this to the Comp-The."

"You're not making any sense."

"Listen, Mel. Did you have any unusual experiences surrounding the visit to Goode's?"

"Like what?"

"Anything. Just any unusually vivid impression or emotion, anything memorable."

"Like eating huge amounts of cow flesh?"

"Anything. Oh, man, you still haven't eaten. Can I get you something? I'm not sure what I have, though."

Melissa put her hand over her stomach. "I don't think I even want anything right now. I'll stick with the Scotch. This is pretty good, you know?"

"Yeah. I think I'll..." Lee stood up and headed for the bar. Melissa started to say something but decided not to. He was obviously on a train of thought that would keep him awake for a while.

"Okay," Lee said. "So, nothing unusual?"

"I don't think so. Just those big red letters on the sign."

"What did they remind you of?"

"I don't know... a big tongue?"

"Okay, what about the shooter? What did he look like?"

"You saw him."

"Well, I'm having a hard time remembering. What did the shooter remind you of?"

"He was wearing a blue suit with stars all over it that sort of glittered. And he had a long beard. He looked like one of the guys from ZZ Top."

"What's that?"

"It's a band. Duh, it's a Texas band! Don't you know anything of your own contribution to the vulgarity that is pop culture?"

"Why did he remind you of this band?"

"Because they have big long beards."

"Hmmm...what color are their beards?"


"Okay. Well look. I don't have all the answers, but I want to run this by Chin."

"What do we do in the mean time? I'm so worried about Suky."

"I think Suky's going to be okay. From everything we've seen, it looks like he took this guy out, right? And that gun, whatever it was, probably wouldn't have affected Suky anyway."


"We can go back and look for him."

Melissa sighed. "No, you're in no condition. I don't want the cops to see us, either."

"Why is that, by the way?"

"I don't know, I just don't. You're right. Suky will be okay."

"Come here." Lee gave Melissa a long hug. "Listen, I'm as shaken up as you are, but you have to eat, you know? How about we order a pizza?"

"Okay. Can we get the veggie kind?"

"Uh...sure, amiga. Sounds good to me."


Chapter 2.5

"Lee. Lee!"

Melissa crouched next to Lee and shook him by the shoulder. The rough hardwood floor creaked under her feet. Lee groaned and flailed his hand in the air, trying to find her.

Melissa glanced around the room. It was eerily quiet now. There was only the drone of the two overhead fans and the distant hum of traffic through the open drive-through window. A woman dressed in pastel pink stood across the table from Melissa. Her eyes were sunken out of sight. Blood had streamed from the sockets and covered her cheeks like some kind of lurid blush. A six-inch-wide stain ran down the front of her dress from the collar to the hem.

It looked to Melissa as if a team of lunatics with paint cans had run wild in the restaurant. Thick gouts of blood had splashed against the windows, obscuring her view outside. The glass of iced tea on the table was clouded with floating droplets of it. Sliced brisket, chicken legs, and sausage links swam in platefuls of red.

"Lee! Wake up."

Lee raised himself partway up, in obvious pain. He looked around the room, wincing, trying to focus his eyes. At that moment, the pink lady let out a feeble hiss and collapsed onto the table, knocking it to the floor and catapulting a rain of blood and silverware onto their heads. Lee screamed and covered his face with both hands.

"Ohh. What happened? Melissa?"

"I'll explain later. We have to find Suky first." Melissa searched the room, looking under tables and chairs, calling Suky's name. There was no answer. "Let's try back here."

They went behind the counter and into the hall leading to the kitchen.

"Oh my god, Lee..."


"Your clothes."

A pool of blood had gathered under Lee when he was on the floor and stained the whole back side of him.

"Well," he said, "We'll worry about it later." Lee bent over and picked up a phone from the hand of a dead cook. "It's on," he said. "Just a dial tone. We should call the police."

"Yeah. No...wait," Melissa said. "Don't. I'm not sure."

"What do you mean you're not sure? These people are dead."

"I'm just not sure."

There were sirens in the distance now.

"We need to leave," Melissa said. "Let's go."

"What about Suky?"

"I don't know. We'll have to try and find him later. I want to go. Come on."

Lee was still wobbling as Melissa helped him out the back door and into the Jalapeno. She jumped into the driver's seat, powered on, and darted onto the access road as the sirens drew closer.

"Where to?" Lee asked drowsily.

"No sleeping," Melissa said. She was afraid he might have a concussion. She reached over and slapped him gently on the cheek. "Lee? No sleeping. Talk to me. I need you to give me directions back to your place."


Friday, February 11, 2005

Chapter 2.4

“So, Suky, what should I get? Recommend for me. This is such a cool place; it looks so much like a barn.” Melissa was ahead of Lee and Suky, leaping over an oily puddle in the parking lot. The side of the barn-like building read, “You Might Consider Giving Some Serious Thought To Thanking Your Lucky Stars That You’re In Texas” in red letters on a white background, above the Goode Company logo in even larger red letters. Beneath the logo was a thick red line on which the letters seemed to be resting.

“That red line beneath the letters makes me think of a big, wet, red hungry tongue. I love how everything is red; it’s like the house of bovine blood. I guess I knew they wouldn’t have soy options; between you and me Lee, I guess I was interested in transgressing my usual dietary rules, since Dave’s not here to ride herd on me, or put his spurs on me, or however you would express that here in Texas.”

Lee was busy lifting Suky over the oily puddle. As he set the little robot down, Suky began to answer Melissa’s question: “Moist smoked duck and chicken lean toward oiliness, but thick, sweet-spicy-smoky barbecue sauce is in a class by itself, transforming the brisket into a real delicacy. Sides such as potato salad and coleslaw aren't Hall of Famers, but the soft homemade jalapeño cornbread is a star player. . . That was the most critical on-line review I found in my initial search, so I assumed it would be the most useful. Would you like me to quote from some reviews that are entirely positive and praise all the food equally?”

“That’s OK,” Melissa replied. “So I guess I should avoid birds.”

“My question when I look at these kinds of slogans,” said Lee, gesturing at the restaurant, “is what exactly is supposed to be so great about Texas? I mean, in this case it’s implied the barbeque is good, but what beyond that? The people aren’t that different from Midwesterners. The big empty spaces are similar to big empty spaces in the Midwest. The stars are just as lucky whatever state you’re in. I mean, I’m from here sort of, but I just feel kind of alienated always by these displays of local pride. Although I guess I am doing what the sign says, giving it some serious thought. . .”

“There’s nothing in Texas but steers and queers,” said Suky. “And you two are going to eat some of one of those. Melissa! I made a clever witticism by relating a relevant local saying to a contemporaneous narrative situation. Are you proud of me?”

“You two are really very similar,” said Melissa, holding the glass door open for them. She and Lee each picked up a yellow plastic tray and began to follow the other patrons toward a row of servers in white uniforms who would spoon out the meat and veggies onto variously-sized plates. The smell of the sugary barbeque sauce mixed with the piercing scent of meat so tender it could almost melt. . . Melissa felt a little intoxicated by it, as well as simultaneously a little put off. I better not eat too much meat, she thought, I haven’t been eating it, and I don’t want to make myself sick.

“That’s actually an Austin saying,” Lee was telling Suky. “Austin has a very large gay community.”

“I heard that saying before from a transsexual woman in L.A.,” said Melissa. “We were getting tested for HIV at the same place, at this roving van that happened to be in the parking-lot of the supermarket closest to my house. I had to get tested because of some umm. Anyway, everyone was negative, which made us all feel really positive. She was a nice girl; she seemed sad that she couldn’t have kids and said that men are such bastards and she looked very convincing. And she said that about Texas. She was from Austin or near Austin. She wore too much pancake make-up, just like a real small-town girl from Texas, like your friend, you know, who took all the pills. I mean, that could describe a few of your friends, but you know about the too-much-make-up thing, how she did it, layered it on, like with a trowel, no offense, whereas in California less is more.”

“I think you’re talking about Sue,” said Lee. “I think I’ll have the chopped beef on a bun; I hope that’s not too messy. You’ll tell me if I’ve got sauce dripping in my beard, right?”

“My God,” said Melissa, “then you’d look just like a Viking on a big date, except you’re a little unathletic to be a Viking. You could be one of the Vikings who spent their time describing to the boss-Vikings how supremely tough they were. You could have sung fancy songs to the butch Vikings.”

“Hey! I’m butch! This beard captures the macho of an ‘old man of the woods.’ ‘Old men of the woods’ are studs!”

“You are the most rustic of cuties babe.” Melissa turned her attention to ordering: “Can I have two jalapeno breads?”

Just then, a blond man with a long blond beard in a bizarrely shiny blue-and-silver uniform (variously sized silver stars on a blue background seemed to grow and shrink slightly as he moved) took two metal objects out of a brown fanny-pack, screwed them together, and began to shoot people. The gun-thing made very little noise, only a tiny “phut,” but when it hit someone that person froze totally still, without falling, and then massive quantities of blood began to hemorrhage out of their mouth, nose, and eyes, as if their insides had suddenly stiffened so much that all the blood was being forced out of them. As the shooting started, Suky put one hand on Melissa’s right leg and one hand on Lee’s left leg and pulled violently, causing them to fall almost instantly flat on their backs on the floor. Both of them hit their heads, and so neither saw the next few seconds in which Suky leapt through the air to attack the blond killer. There was a scream and a sound like a chainsaw and blood fountained in every direction through the restaurant.

Melissa waited on the floor, terrified, with her right hand over Lee’s chest to stop him from getting up (which was not something he was tempted to do, actually). She waited, counting to herself, “One-one-hundred, two-one-hundred, three-one-hundred.” No one else was being shot. The blood in the air must have been the killer’s. At “twenty-three-one-hundred” she couldn’t take it anymore and jumped to her feet. She was the only living person standing in the restaurant. About ten dead patrons were standing frozen, with their own blood spilled all down their faces, shirts, and pants. Neither Suky nor the blond-bearded killer were anywhere in sight.


Thursday, December 23, 2004

Chapter 2.3

“I’m trying to decide,” said Melissa, “whether to eat real barbeque or some kind of soy option. The idea of real barbeque is tantalizing—like, I figure it will definitely be more juicy. But on the other hand, then I get this mental image of a fat little cow with big watery eyes standing in a field behind a barb-wire fence. . . and then I feel guilty. And you know I’m a bio-massicist, so eating cows is actually against my politics. Of course, it’s not like my politics is my religion or something, so I can go against my politics sometimes. . . But maybe I’ll just get the soy so I won’t have to think about this any more.”

“Um, at Goode Company, there may not be a soy option. You’re not in California anymore,” said Lee.

“I’m sure there’s a soy option. I mean, we are in the civilized world. I’m sure there must be lots of vegetarians in Houston.”

“They might not eat at Goode Company.”

As they were speaking, Suky guided the car onto one of the Overway’s steep off-ramps. Halfway down the off-ramp, the cars ahead were stopped, so the little Jalapeno Sportlet stopped as well.

“So, Lee, are you seeing anyone these days? I remember when you were living in that cabin you said you weren’t trying to meet anyone, but it must be easier now that you’re living in the city.”

“Well, I’m still not really trying that hard. I’m actually very poor, and I really can’t afford to do much more than stay at home and write. I’m starting to feel like I’m going to be poor for my whole life. It’s OK, you know, some people have to have that experience and so maybe I’m one of those people who should have it. But my sense of this city is it’s moving in a kind of a yuppie direction. Women are out on the street wearing clothes that cost more than I make in a month, so obviously it’s impossible for me to take women like that out. Sometimes I go to clubs with Travis, I think you’ve met Travis? I’m running through my discretionary spending in a couple hours on the town, so obviously I’d look like a horse’s ass if I tried to take a woman out and she’d expect a typical expensive-restaurant, bottle-of-wine date and I’d like, I dunno, take her for tacos at the taco-stand or something. I discovered this incredible taco stand by the way. Mind blowing. I mean, you know, there’s like grease, you know, some food is greasy and that’s bad, but this food is just dripping this incredible fluid. You wouldn’t want to call it “grease” because . . . that would be unfair. This is just . . . transcendent heart-attack fluid. . .”

The car had moved forward maybe a foot in the last three minutes.

“Honk, Suky,” Melissa said. “I want those fucking people out of our way. I am so hungry.”

“Am I being ordered to honk?” Suky replied. “In my opinion, honking at this time would be unjustified and rude, but if you are specifically informing me that I should honk. . . well then, I’ll make some noise at the bastards!”

“No, no, it’s OK. The thing is Lee there’s lots of girls who are not shallow like that. I mean, there are women who respect an intellectual like yourself. Someday you’ll be a big professor and own a house and all the trimmings, whatever. Or your business with Chin will make a little money.”

“My business with Chin is at best a cottage industry. The multi-nationals are not interested about the kind of A.I. Chin and I are promoting. What do they care if an artificial intelligence can do theology? Multi-nationals profit from theology remaining under the control of knee-jerk traditionalist and kooks. They look at what I’m doing and say, a computer that can think about why God created the Universe is not a traditionalist project . . . So they think of me as a kook! The fact is if theology was approached with the same degree of ingenuity that, say, film entertainment technology was approached. . . I think human beings would know a lot more about what we’re doing and should be doing in this world. . .”

“You just need to publicize. A lot of rabbis and ministers and imams and monks are going to be eager to download a Computer Theologian, so they can test their understanding of scripture against the computer. Just like how big chess players practice their games against the chess A.I.s, because the cutting-edge of chess is with the A.I.s, so if humans want to be in contention that’s who they practice with. The Computer Theologian is destined to be the dominant force in scriptural interpretation.”

“There are real problems,” Lee replied. “Protestants don’t like the Comp-The because, obviously, it can’t be inspired by God’s guidance to interpret correctly. . . I mean, that’s obvious to them, but not to me at all; I don’t know how they can just assume that God’s sphere of action, as far as inspiration, is confined to the human psyche. But they do. Arrogance. The big thing about humans is they think they can decide what God really thinks, really wants, really prefers, and they almost always think that’s aligned with their own interests. . . Of course, some monks do escape from that ego-fallacy. But I want the Computer Theologian to escape further. I think through this software that the Mystery of God may finally be able to be appreciated. . . more deeply than humans have been able to do.”

“Excuse me,” said Suky. “Although I am technically not a true A.I. . . . I am only a pattern-response server. . .”

“Nothing wrong with that,” said Lee. “I used to love my old pattern-responder. For years, she stimulated my creativity. And then one day she didn’t. So I turned her off. I needed to start listening to silence again. It’s a horrible feeling, so boring, listening to silence, but sometimes you need something like that, to promote intellectual discipline. But, uh, anyway, go ahead.”

“I am programmed to avoid discussions of theology, due to the fact that very few of my pre-programmed responses are relevant to that area. On the other hand, I have a broad ability to discuss Artificial Intelligence. Do you intend to create Artificial Intelligences which have experiences analogous to those which humans have when praying or thinking about god?”

“Please disable relays,” said Lee. “I don’t want you banking any of my info with your home-server. Computerized Theology may be a cottage-industry, but cottage industries can be competitive too.”

“Relays are disabled,” said Suky. “This may inhibit my conversational skills. But I’m still a very good listener!”

“I love that,” said Lee. “Some of those pre-programmed responses make him seem so human. Such a little gentleman! It’s great programming.”

“I like having him around,” said Melissa. “Dave has a non-talker in his car, but I really prefer the stimulus of the interaction. Keeps my thoughts flowing, makes me more productive.”

“Right. So little robot, the answer to your question is, humans have a lot of different experiences when thinking about God. I’m not interested in replicating emotional experiences, because emotions are just epiphenomena. They’re pro-survival, just like pain when you’re burned or hit or genital pleasure from reproduction are pro-survival. Emotions help humans to more efficiently evaluate their shifting status within tribes, extended families, or other groups. But theology is more like chess or physics, more like experimental physics. You work out what the motives and interests of a being called God could have been, based on a mixture of textual evidence and historical evidence, with help from past interpreters when appropriate. You create profiles of what God might be like and where His intentions may be leading the world, or how humans are blocking His intentions, or whatever. Many profiles can exist, depending on how certain interpretative cruxes are valued. But not all profiles are equally valid, because some use cruxes in ways that are more resonant with scripture-as-a-whole or history-as-a-whole. The Computer Theologian produces constantly updated three-dimensional graphic representations that map the relative merits of different responses to various cruxes. It helps us to discover what understandings of God have the most textual consistency. . .”

“If there were a God,” said Melissa, “he would get us off this off-ramp.”

Just then, the car in front began to move. Fifteen seconds later, the Jalapeno Sportlet was out on ground streets.

“Wow. What a coincidence,” said Lee. “If it was a coincidence. I do want to teach the Comp-The to begin thinking about coincidences and other possible signs of God’s activity. So far though, those programs lead to a rapid degradation of the Comp-The’s ability for contextual analysis. It starts deprioritizing historical data, and deciding what god’s like based on how many birds fly past the window and stuff like that. . .”

“You’re a wild man,” said Melissa. “I mean, in terms of intellectual practices, you’re a real wild man. I know some of my girlfriends in L.A. would go crazy about you, I think. There must be people like that in Houston too. You know, bohemians. Like hipsters, but not stupid hipsters. Hipsters with thoughts, you know.”

“Maybe,” said Lee. “So how’s Dave?”

“He’s really into cooking lately. He’s always cooking. Are we there yet? I’m so hungry.”

“We are here, O puissant mistress,” said Suky. “Time for some hot, juicy Texas barbecue.”

“Yes,” said Melissa. “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow. . .”


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Chapter 2.2

Melissa woke up as the car came to a stop in front of Lee's house.

"Shall I pull around to the side?" Suky asked.

"Okay, why not?" she yawned.

Suky took the car into the narrow driveway beside the house. "So this is Lee's famous place, huh?" Melissa said as they stepped out of the car.

"I have little doubt," Suky said. "1919 Priscilla Court, correct?"

"Uh-huh." Melissa knocked on a side door near where they had parked. She was answered by a skinny guy with glasses and a few days' growth of beard.

"Hey, Mel!" he said.

She threw her arms around him. "What's up, Lee-Bo!"

"Not much," he said, patting her on the back. "Come on in."

"Excuse me," Suky said. Melissa turned around. The robot was having trouble making his way up the steep concrete steps.

"Here, Suky. Let me help you..."

"Not to worry," he said. "Just hold a minute." Suky squared up momentarily, then unwrapped in a new configuration with extended arms and legs. He took a running start and mounted the steps quickly, letting momentum compensate for his lack of balance. Melissa caught him with her hand as he ran up against her knee.

Lee's house was a single large room. The side door led into a kitchen area, which he had partially set off with some shelves and a bread rack full of wines and Scotches. The walls of the main living space were filled with books. There was a small TV, with books stacked on it, in front of the couch. There were two desks strewn with papers, and more tall stacks of papers on the floor.

"This is Suky," Melissa said.

Lee pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looked down at Suky. "Pleased to meet you," he said.

Suky tottered out from under Melissa's wing, squared up, and returned to his normal shape. "How's it hanging," he answered.

"Uh, fine." Lee said. "It's so cool y'all are here."

"It's great to be here!" Melissa hugged him again. "God, you look...busy."

"I'm working on a paper."

"Ooh. I hope we're not bothering you."

"No, no. I have to eat, anyway. Do you guys want a beer?"

"Sure," Melissa said.

Lee took two Fat Tires from the fridge and handed one to Melissa.

"Cheers," she said.


"So, what's your paper about?"

"Umm..." He ran his hands through his hair. "It's philosophy of A.I."

"Mmh," Melissa said, pulling the bottle away from her mouth. "I bet Suky would be interested in that. Oh, you know, I forgot to have him call for reservations. Hey, Suky?"

"Yes?" The robot was standing in front of the bookshelves, scanning them systematically. His head turned slowly from side to side as he spoke.

"Could you call the barbecue place and make reservations for us?"


Lee laughed. "You don't need reservations for a barbecue place. Where are we going?"

"Goode Company."

"Yeah, don't worry about it. It's cafeteria style. No big deal."

"Oh, okay. Well, never mind, Suky. What are you doing, Suky? Don't you want to come over and get to know Lee?"

Suky turned away from the shelves and came to stand next to Melissa's chair.

"How do you like Houston so far, Suky?" Lee asked.

"I'm glad I don't have to breathe," Suky answered.

Lee smiled. "True."

"He's joking," Melissa explained. "It's very beautiful here."

"No, I'm not," Suky said. "It's just an observation based on routine air toxicity readings. Of course, I'm still susceptible to corrosive effects over a longer period, but I didn't think it worth mentioning since we're only here to visit." Suky flexed his legs and sprang onto the sofa next to Melissa.

"Right," Lee said. "Well, listen, how long are y'all going to be in town? Do you have a place to stay?"

"We haven't really found a place yet," Melissa answered.

"You should stay here."

"Oh, I don't want to bother you while you're writing your paper," Melissa said.

"It's no trouble, really. It'd be fun."

"Are you sure?"


"Cool. Well...are you starving, Lee? I assume you've been writing all day without food...?"

"Yeah," he said. "Let me just get my shoes and we'll go."


Chapter 2.1

Suky was quiet during the elevator ride and all the way to the car. Melissa kept waiting for him to say something. Finally she couldn't stand it any more.

"What are you thinking, Suky?"

The robot's eyes flickered rapidly and she realized he was Googling. His innards clicked a few times before he looked up and answered.

"I was researching what that lady said about this not being a physical assault under existing law. I examined the laws on the way here, you know. I didn't go in unprepared. It seemed to me we had a case."

"I know, Suky. I didn't want to sue anyone, though."

"Sometimes you have to let people know they can't push you around, Melissa."

"I know."

"Well, anyway. If there's any law that specifically excludes this type of incident from the definition of physical assault, I can't find any reference to it."

"How about one of those .gov sites?"

"Melissa, I don't think it's very prudent to try to access .gov sites without the proper authorization."

"I guess. Well, are you ready to go to the barbecue place?"


"Okay." She slumped into the passenger seat and let Suky take the wheel. "She gave me two cards. That's perfect! I was going to go say hi to my friend Lee. Now we can take him with us. Can you call him, Suky?"

"Okay." Suky drove while Melissa watched the houses and side streets slip by outside the window. She was feeling tired. They were in a beautiful old neighborhood. The front yards were full of palm trees and fountains and statues and rose bushes. The houses looked like New Orleans, she thought, though she'd never seen New Orleans.

"Hello?" It was Lee's voice coming from the robot driver.

"Lee? It's Melissa!"


"Hey, guess what. I'm in town!"

"In Houston?"

"Yeah. Have you had dinner?"

"Um..." He was looking for a clock, she knew. "No."

"You want to go eat?"

"Sure. I didn't know you were coming...When did you get here?"

"I'll tell you all about it. Can you meet me?"

"Okay," he said. "No, wait. Chin has my car."

She yawned. "That's okay, that's okay. I'll pick you up. Are you at home?"


"Okay. See ya."


Melissa sighed and stretched her legs, pressing the soles of her feet hard against the front of the floorboard. She curled up on the seat and rested her head on the window while Suky drove. One thing she loved about Suky was letting him navigate rush hour traffic. It was late afternoon now, and she was ready for a nap.


Chapter 1.5

Melissa rested on one knee and placed her hand on Suky's head as he recited. She noticed that the room had gradually grown dimmer, and their surroundings continued to darken until she could no longer make out the walls clearly. She looked up, and saw that the cheap-looking ceiling had disappeared. In its place was a starry sky. Jagged bits of cloud drifted across the face of an orange harvest moon.

All the animals had retreated from view, but the wolves continued to moan in the distance. The wall behind the reception desk was now the edge of a dark pine forest.

"Thanks, Suky," Melissa said, rising to her feet. "That always makes me feel better. I wonder why?"

"The rhythm. The repetition is soothing. The way each line ends with a question, and the voice going upward, it gives it a very open feel. It's sort of hopeful, in a way. Also, the text reinforces your romanticized image of yourself."

"My what?"

"Your idea of yourself as mysterious, unfathomable, and aloof. That's what comforts you above all other things. It helps you to deal with the fact that we're being ignored."

"How would you know?"

"I was just speculating."

"Hmph. I don't think it's that simple. I don't just give pre-programmed responses, you know."

"Perhaps," Suky answered quietly.

Melissa winced. "Oh, Suky. I didn't mean it that way! I like your responses."

"Thank you. I'm sorry for being so reductive in my analysis."

"That's okay, Suke."

"There was only an 85 percent chance of accuracy, anyway."

"Don't worry about it."

A tiny light appeared in the woods beyond the reception desk. It bobbed up and down as it moved closer to them. Soon, a woman in a gray suit stepped out of the trees and came toward them. She was holding a miniature jack o' lantern, which she placed on the edge of the desk. "Welcome to Camhurst Enterprises," she said. "Happy Halloween."

Melissa looked around once again. Now that her eyes were used to the dimness, she saw that they were in a kind of Transylvanian setting. They were standing in a small forest clearing. Above the trees to her right, she could see a craggy hill with a ruined castle on the crest. A muddy path opened at the edge of the woods, leading in the direction of the castle.

"I see," she said. "It's a Halloween theme."

"I could have told you that," Suky offered.

"We're so sorry for the state we were in when you arrived," the woman said. "We're still working on getting things up and running for the Halloween season, and I don't believe..."

She had slipped a silver palm book from her breast pocket and was dabbing at the screen with a stylus.

"...that we were expecting you. I'm Emily, by the way."

"I'm Melissa. This is Suky."

"Great! Pleased to meet you both. What can we do for you today?"

"Well, we wanted to speak to Mr. Camhurst."

"Mm-hm." Emily nodded gently, waiting for Melissa to go on.

"Because, um. There was some kind of...defect in one of my appliances."

"Okay. And have you spoken with customer service?"

"Well, no."

Emily stroked the face of her palm book deftly as they talked. "And you have the defective device with you?"

"No, was destroyed. Suky had to destroy it."

Emily seemed unruffled by this news. "Why was that?"

"It was biting me."

"And what was the model?"

"The what?"

"The model. What was the product that was causing the problem?"

"Oh, an alarm clock."

Emily stopped writing and frowned. "What sort of appliance was it?"

"An alarm clock."

"I don't believe we manufacture alarm clocks."

"No, it's not that."

"Mm-hm." Emily waited patiently.

"It's--it was a holographic alarm. What happened was, Mr. Camhurst's face came out of it and bit me."

Emily switched off her palm book. Her face seemed to vanish in the darkness for a moment as the blue glow abruptly winked out. Dazzled, Melissa searched for the woman's face in the dim light from the little pumpkin. Emily was smiling sadly.

"Melissa, I'm sure I don't need to remind you that all likenesses of Mr. Camhurst, and his immediate family, are the property of Camhurst Enterprises and may not be downloaded for personal use."

"I didn't download it. I never saw it before it tried to bite me."

"Then how do you know it was Mr. Camhurst?"

"Suky captured the image and ran a check."

"It's a 28-point match," Suky said. He floated the image in front of them. It rotated slowly, a 3-D snapshot of a face contorted with rage and sudden terror. "I snapped this as I rushed in for the attack. There was little time. I had to act very quickly."

"Well. I certainly understand your alarm, Melissa. I mean, I understand why you were alarmed. What you encountered was a part of our new copyright protection protocol. Illegally downloaded images owned by Camhurst Enterprises are subject to...becoming aggressive, as a way of warning potential violators of intellectual property law."

"I didn't illegally download anything."

"I only said potential violators. No one's accusing anyone of anything."

"She was physically attacked," Suky interjected.

"It wasn't a physical attack. It was just trying to get your attention, that's all. All it would have done was issue a warning similar to the one you heard a little while ago." She stared down at Suky for a few seconds to let this sink in.

"I had to defend her from physical attack."

"It wasn't a physical attack under federal or state law."

"As you interpret it."

"It's specifically excluded," she replied coldly.

"That's okay, Suky," Melissa put in. She turned to Emily. "Listen, I'm not trying to get anything out of this, okay? I just want to know what that image was doing on my alarm clock."

"I'm afraid that's a question I can't answer, Melissa." Emily stepped around the desk and walked closer to them. Her tone softened. "Please understand that I do sympathize with your problem." She raised up her hands in a gesture of futility. "There are a lot of illicit programs buzzing around out there. Now, you never know who might have had access to your clock at one time or another." Her eyes darted down in Suky's direction as she said this.

"We realize that accidents happen," she continued. "I'm afraid it's very difficult for Mr. Camhurst to handle each of these problems personally, but I assure you that he does keep track of them and we're doing everything we can to make sure things like this don't happen."

A wolf howled miserably in the distance. Others joined in a chorus, some closer to the edge of the forest.

"The Count's on the prowl," Emily said with a wry smile. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Melissa?"

Melissa felt confused. She didn't want to leave but she didn't know what else to say. Maybe Emily was right. Camhurst could have gotten into her alarm by accident, she supposed. But there was no way Suky had downloaded him without telling her. With Suky, it was always "better safe than sorry."

"No. I guess not."

"Let me walk you out."

They followed a path through the woods back in the direction of the entrance. Melissa could actually feel the pine needles crunching under the soles of her shoes. Suky switched on a flashlight beam in his forehead. He walked ahead of them, casting a wobbly circle of yellow light on the path. He began reciting the poem again. Melissa loved him for it, though it didn't seem to comfort her as much this time.

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning—I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade—this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

They came up suddenly on the door and the set of chairs.

"Is this your first visit to Houston, Melissa?" Emily asked.


"Well, let me wish you a pleasant stay. If I may make a recommendation?"


"Treat yourself to some south Texas cuisine while you're here. It's on us." She produced two plastic cards from a coat pocket and handed them to Melissa.

"Oh. Thank you."

"It's been a pleasure meeting you," Emily said. They shook hands. "And you," she said, leaning over to shake hands with the robot.

"Thanks, Missy," Suky replied.

They stepped into the hallway and the door closed behind them with a hiss. Melissa looked at the two cards as she walked back to the elevator. They were gift cards from Goode Company Barbecue.