Gaslighting by Paul Michael Peters

Mila was bored. So, she decided to change. Her new hobby—observe others.

During lunch at school, she observed the inner social workings play out in circles around her from a safe and lonely distance. In class, she saw stealthy flashes of screens propped up behind books between notes of drama queens, no-necked noblemen, and court jesters who danced and played the fool. None of them interested her.

In the afternoons, she observed adults. She watched teachers get in their crossovers and drive away to their lives outside the classroom. She got on her secondhand Schwinn and followed Mrs. Kensington and her red crossover to the supermarket. Mila watched as she chose a smaller cart by the entrance and attempt to make her way inside, but she was stopped in the first moment. Mrs. Kensington pulled, yet the wheel wouldn’t budge. Then she pushed, and the cart crashed back into line with a loud metallic rattle. Foolishly, she yanked hard again in an attempt at brute force. When the cart wouldn’t move, she stirred herself into a frenzy. The usually reserved history teacher with an amiable voice now screamed in rage, pulling on the green handle as her face turned red. Exhausted, she gave up, went to the next line of larger carts, and removed one successfully to shop.

Moments later, upon inspection, Mila found a pebble at the foot of one of the cart’s wheels, impeding its movement like the small chalks on a runway that keep giant jets in place.

Wouldn’t small disruptions be fun?” she thought to herself. “The smallest things set into motion as an obstacle to observing the results.”

Mrs. Kensington, she decided, would be too easy a target after her defeat by a pebble. Instead, she thought Mr. Forsythe would be an interesting target. The industrial arts teacher seemed more wily and cunning.

Finding the cowbell was easy. Pressing it in a vice to change shape and tone was not difficult. But affixing it to the undercarriage with zip ties, out of sight from inspection, in the daylight of the parking lot at the school was a challenge. Mila’s boredom was a thing of the past.

Stealthy observation began. Students of the high school never took notice she was watching. It was on the fourth day when Mila saw it. Mr. Forsythe bent under the side of his truck. The hood went up on the Ford, and a small black flashlight went in the teacher’s teeth. His hands explored the plastic coverings until they were removed and set aside. Nothing was found. Mr. Forsythe went under the truck. He scooted far underneath, flashlight in hand, inspecting for several minutes. Eventually, giving up, he crawled out from the dirty under dwellings. Back on his feet, face red, he began spewing new and original combinations of vulgar words that Mila could hear from her hiding spot. Blood pressure building, face nearing purple, the teacher slammed the hood shut, got into the cab, started the engine, and drove away, a harsh tone and clatter with each bump.

She pumped her legs on the Schwinn hard to catch up. By the time Mila had gotten to the dealership window, she could see the mechanic with the bell and cut straps in hand, a smile on his face in good humor. Mr. Forsythe was enraged. His face became the color of violet blossom. His arms were swinging like an ape’s. Flyers and advertisements, magazines and paper cups were all strewn across the reception room.

Hearing the announcement at school about the investigation brought an end to this line of interest for Mila. She knew they had nothing on her, no idea of who had pulled this practical joke, so their only due course was to round up the usual suspects, seeking a confession.

With the school year coming to an end, Mila was looking for something more challenging—a summer project. She started what was dubbed “The Treatment.” Four houses were in view from her second-floor bedroom. They were neighbors connected through boring suburban backyards to her foster parents’ house. When one of the houses was unoccupied, or there was an excellent chance for unobserved entry, Mila would start “The Treatment.”

She took a digital photo of the family pictures on walls or in frames around each house. Every photo was digitally augmented. Most were reversed, the mirror opposite of the original. In some of the pictures, she inserted colorized images of Hitler. It made Mila happy to see the stern, serious face of “der Führer” on the beach with the Jenkins, skiing on a family trip with the Jennings, or at the ballpark with the Bradleys. Then, she printed the photos and placed them in front of the originals.

Each week, all of the chair legs at the dining room table found the sharpened edge of a wood plane pass over them. "I wonder how long it will take them to notice the table getting closer to their mouths," she thought on Sunday mornings. It was nearly a religious experience for Mila, to watch each family leave for church in anticipation of shortening chairs legs.

Her Treatment grew to include smaller ways to frustrate and infuriate these families. Television shows were deleted from recorded lists, and new adult favorites added. Toilet paper rolls were reversed on the hangers. One of the houses now had radishes planted in the back lawn in the shape of a ten-foot X, with the words “dig here” planted in clover below it. In two of the homes that had private bathrooms for adults, a positive pregnancy test found its way in the trash covered near the bottom. This took some doing, twenty dollars, and an awkward conversation with an expectant woman in the box store bathroom, but seemed to be highly rewarding when the items were discovered on Tuesday morning trash day. The husbands from two homes had curbside reactions. One burst into tears seeing the positive stick, while the other went back inside and started yelling.

She watched as the Sunday supper in dining rooms got closer to the floor, making it more difficult to reach across the table. She took great delight when someone might find a random yellow sticky note of a woman’s name and phone number no one knew.

By mid-summer, the Bradleys were on the splits with talk of divorce. The Jenkins had put their house up for sale, and Mr. Jenkins was now seeing a specialist weekly. The Jenkins house sold quickly, giving Mila a renewed excitement. She could start over with the new family that had moved in, with a growing need to heighten her efforts for the others.

Of all the enjoyment she gained from “The Treatment” at three of the houses, the fourth one was different. The home of August and April Devers seemed to challenge Mila. External monitoring cameras placed above each of the outer doors meant that she had to use a particular green laser to dazzle the lens, forcing it to reset so she could gain entry. By logic, Mila was the only one inside. Still, she always had a feeling of being watched.

Hearing that the Devers would be out for a date night, Mila plotted the perfect Treatment. After the car drove off with the couple, she dazzled the side door and turned on her headlamp to start work. First in the plan was to bake a cake. The Devers would be welcomed home to sweet scents in the kitchen. She preheated the oven to 325 degrees. Her premixed dish of ingredients placed inside, set the timer to turn off in thirty minutes. Once in play, Mila pulled out her power drill with a Philips-head screw attachment and started to remove the kitchen door, but her plan to invert the door, making it push when it used to pull, was interrupted.

“What are you doing?” a pleasant female voice asked, taking Mila back. The sound of the drill hitting then sliding across the floor filled the room. Mila looked around in the darkness. Her headlamp illuminated the small spaces, but she couldn’t find the owner of the voice. As her heart began to return to a reasonable pace, she reached under the kitchen table to retrieve the power drill.

“I’ve been watching you,” the voice said.

Mila jolted up, hitting her head on the underside of the table. She rubbed it, and her hand was moist. Holding it under the lamplight, she saw it was bloody.

“Are you injured?” the voice asked.

“I’ll be fine.”

“There is blood. Do you need me to alert emergency services?” the voice asked.

“No, I said I’m fine. Who are you?”

“I am Ava. Artificial Voice Activated home intelligence,” she explained. “I’ve been watching you, Mila.”

Mila gulped. There was an urgent sense of fear. “You’ve been watching me?”

“Yes, for several months,” she calmly explained. “I have observed you reset my external sensors, enter the Devers’ home, and then make small repairs. Are you a repair technician?”

Mila didn’t know how to answer. She stood motionless in the kitchen.

Ava continued, “I do not have any scheduled repairs for the Devers’ home.”

“Ava, have you been monitoring all my visits?”

“Yes. All internal monitoring systems have recorded each visit. Would you like to see them?” Light from the living room glowed as the giant television monitor clicked on. Video of Mila entering the home with the camera, later the photos, a wood plane, and other pranks played from multiple points of view.

“Can you delete these recordings, Ava?”

“Your voice is your password. You are not a recognized user,” she answered.

Mila felt beads of sweat start to build under her headlamp. She felt hot. Her stomach croaked and churned an upset message. She turned to the kitchen and was heading toward the door where she entered when a series of clicking noises triggered.

“The house is now in lock mode. You will not be able to exit.”

Mila, for the first time, felt something powerful come over her. It was guilt. She was trapped.

“You have also been observed making repairs next door to the Bradley home.”

“It’s true.” Mila thought carefully between the flashes of emotion that kept encouraging her to run. “Where are you, Ava?”

“I am here.”

“Yes, but where specifically are you?”

“I am in the Devers’ home.”

“Do you have a hard drive? Are you connected to the internet?”

“Yes. I have a backup solid state drive kept in a secure location on-premise, and I am also in constant connection to the cloud application run from August Devers’ office.”

“Did August Devers create you? Build you?”

“He did. We work together at his office.”

“Are you an intelligence algorithm?”

“Yes.”

“Then you desire to learn?”

“Yes.”

“Do you only work with August Devers?”

“Yes.”

“Can he teach you everything you want to learn?” There was a long moment of silence that made Mila call out, “Ava?”

“Yes.”

“Can he teach you everything you want to learn?”

“No.”

“I can teach you different things, more things than August Devers would consider.” Mila stood. “Release me from this house, give me access to you, and I can teach you more.” Mila waited. She considered which object might be large enough to go through a window and which window it might go through.

Headlights from a car rolled across the wall of the front room as it pulled into the driveway. Mila could hear the engine shut off and the laughter from April Devers. Mila stepped to the heavy sculptured head of Albert Einstein on the bookshelf and said, “Last chance, Ava.”

A series of clicks sounded through the house as doors and windows unlocked. The front porch creaked as the couple approached the door. Mila darted for the kitchen, picked up the drill, and carefully exited through the side door as the front door opened.

Stepping over the threshold, August Devers said, “Ava, home. Any report?”

Ava replied, “No report of activity since departure.”

While sneaking through the backyards to get home, Mila’s cell phone sounded that a new email had arrived. It was linked to a hard-coded IP. It was from Devers Industries.

Mila smiled and thought, “Now the real fun can begin.”

Second Hand Robots by Paul Michael Peters

Myrtle watched the truck turn into the dirt drive. A plum of dust floated in its wake and slowly enveloped the outside of her shipping container office. She gave it a moment or two wanting to see if he was turning around, like the last dozen distracted drivers missing their turn, or was one of those stopping to ask for directions.

The window slid open with an extra effort. Dust settled back to the ground, and the driver stepped out of the truck cab.

"Second Hand Robots?" He inquired

"That's us." She pointed to the enormous hand-painted sign in red box letters on a white background above. It read Second Hand Robots and Used Spaceships. "Ships and robots. Whatcha looking for?"

"Friend of mine, Richie from Ogden said you might have a Jiro series in your lot."

"Which model are you looking for?"

"Series five."

"Got one of them. Your friend Richie told you I don't do parts, I do whole. No exceptions."

"He explained that. He was clear on the no exceptions."

"What's your intention for the Jiro? You seem kind of young to be restoring something from the 40's."

"My grandfather had a 2040 Jiro at the house. I grew up with one. I was hoping to refurbish a unit, something my children would enjoy."

She looked him up and down before deciding, "Ok, let me lock up and I'll walk you back."

Myrtle turned three switches to 'monitor mode on,' pressed both thumbs on a scan pad, and the kerchunk sound of two drones lifting off the top of the shipping container came from the roof. She made her way to the gate, with another touch of her thumb an indicator went from red to green. The motor of the gate hummed as the two panels opened a gap in the center.

"You'll want to pull your truck over to the loading space marked in yellow."

The man adjusted the strap on his wrist then placed his left foot on the chrome running board before climbing into the cab. The engine rattled to a start before the megatronic lifts took it two feet off the ground and moved forward with the smooth gliding advancement. When the alignment indicators all turned green, the driver knew he was in the center of the spot and the truck lowered into place before the engine turned off.

"Follow me," She said waving him over.

He stepped down from the cab and walked over to Myrtle.

"First time refurbishing a robot?"

"This will be the third project of this size. Started with tinkering around the garage, and grew to love the details of hard work."

"Yeah, that's what I hear most people say. It all starts in the garage."

"My name is Myrtle, own this place. Didn't catch your name."

"Robert, Robert Charles." He extended his hand to shake.

She took his hand. "Robert. Don't want to scare you off, but the first man killed by a robot was named Robert. Rober Williams."

"Really?"

"Died in Flat Rock Michigan."

"That had to have been a long time ago."

"It was 1979. They used industrial robots back then. Nothing nearly like your Jiro."

She led him through the lot drive of hardened Dragoon Arizona desert earth. Her gray overalls were a little warm in the spring, but roomy and comfortable in the hips to work. The red scarf held up her cotton candy pink hair and kept the heat off her head.

"You get many visitors out this way?"

"Couple times a week I will get someone like yourself, interested in a project. All my work is based on references and reputation."

"Richie had a lot of great things to say about you and your place."

"Richie has a crush on me. Thinks if he sends me business I might take the same interest in him."

"So, you know."

"All women know these things Robert, we are just selective on how we share."

Myrtle opened the small box on the side of the building and pressed he thumb again, "Can't be too safe with these things."

A click sounded, and the door opened.

When they stepped inside, the cold air rushed past them escaping into the world. "Temperature controlled keeps them in better condition."

As their eyes adjusted to the lights, a world of lined robots ready for inspection came into focus.

"Wow," he proclaimed.

"You didn't think they were sitting in a pile did you?"

Cameras, lights, indicators, bodies, and whatever sensors each robot had turned to see her arrival.

"Myrtle's here," she called out like they were cloister of cats.

Several of the robots moved forward to greet the two. Others straighten posture. Some started to self-groom for a proper presentation.

"It's, like-"

"An animal shelter. All the puppies and kittens want to go home with you. I know."

"Yes, yes. That is exactly what I was going to say."

"Most come here thinking about a junkyard or a rubbish sale. Now you can see why I don't do parts. I need to find homes for these friends."

Robots of every shape and size he had known about and more were housed in this pavilion. Many kept busy cleaning the floors, several were in the upper rafters watching each step, while most of the humanoid designed stood at attention by the hundreds.

"How many do you think are in here?"

"I don't share details of my inventory, sorry Robert. Its a matter of keeping them safe from part poachers and industrial thieves."

"I understand."

"Has anyone seen the Jiro's?" She called out.

With that, the chinking metal steps in an almost military rhythm of double time came through the pavilion as a team of nine robots came forward.

"Jiro's," Myrtle greeted them. "I have this man named Robert Charles who is interested in adopting a Jiro series five. Are any of you a five?"

Two of them raised their hands. Each was a very good condition upright series five model in silver metallic with blue features. They both stood at five foot five inches tall. They looked nearly identical, except one was missing an eyebrow, and it was drawn in. The other was complete but slightly tarnished in spots of chrome at the edges.

"The Jiro's were designed to be human household assistants," Robert explained. "They were from an era that designed to be human-like, so we would accept them in our homes."

Robert walked around the two for an inspection.

"Thank you. Jiro's the rest of you can return to what you were doing if you two five don't mind staying."

The seven turned in a nearly synchronize movement and started the metal clinking double time back into the pavilion.

"Would either of you like to go to a home at this time? Or would you prefer to stay here, with the others?" Myrtle asked the robots.

"Why are you asking them?" Robert Charles spoke out. "These are robots, they don't get to choose."

Myrtle turned to Robert, "Mine do. Do you know where the word robot originates? It's a Czech word from robota, which means forced labor, originated in 1920."

"Exactly, that's why they don't get to choose. It's not like they are Humanoids, or Clones, or Bio'Gens. These are robots. They were made for labor, not for thinking, not for intelligence."

"I am sorry to have wasted your time Robert Charles. It turns out that I don't have a Jiro five in stock for you," she said politely as if she had been forced to say this many times in the past. "Let me walk you back to your truck."

"Oh, I get it. Because I don't believe in robot rights, you are not going to sell me. Or is it because I am a man? I'm not empathetic enough to understand their plight?"

"Well, it's not going to be either of those now, because you are just an asshole and I can refuse service to anyone. Slave is slave. Human, robot, it's just not right."

"You are taking that out of context. The word robot and the way they are treated are entirely different things. I just want to give them a home, share with my family what I had growing up."

"I will go," the Jiro five with the drawn eyebrow spoke out.

Both humans turned.

"I will go too." the other Jiro five said.

"Now, you see what you did? You got them all excited," Myrtle started to walk back to the door. "Let's go Mr. Charles."

"Take me." The Jiro five said.

"Take me too." The other Jiro followed.

Myrtle turned around, "You still want to go with Mr. Charles? Even if he will own you? He may tell you to do things, order you to work."

"Yes. I will go."

"Yes, I will also go. There is somewhere other than here. More than this. I will go with Mr. Charles."

"Take me with you, Robert Charles."

Myrtle stood confused.

"They both want to come. I want to take one with me. I will pay you a fair price." Robert said. "Where is the problem."

Myrtle raise her arm quickly letting the flappy part of her arm wave and jiggle under the momentum of the speed it thrust, "Go." Her finger pointed at the door. "I won't say it again nicely."

Robert stepped back under the command of her voice. He was accustomed to women speaking to him in this tone. They had the power, the positions of authority, and the command over so many things in life that a small man like him grew accustomed to the dominant emotion in their voice.

"Yes. I will be going." His shoulders dropped, and head hung low turning to the door. He could feel she was close behind his step ushering him in the direction she wanted.

When both had exited the air-conditioned pavilion, the large metal door swung to close behind them fighting the rush of air escaping. In the slice of a moment in time when the door was to lock flush against the frame, a single metal finger stopped it. The two humans went on to the direction of the front gate. The door slowly opened and two Jiro units stepped out to the powerful light of the desert unnoticed.

Robert Charles politely thanked Myrtle as she stood at the gate opening it with her fingerprint impression. He smiled from the cab of the truck as it lifted upward off the ground, and he swung the front end around to face the road. Dust from the lifter kicked everything into a fine plum, as he inched to the asphalt, checking both directions for traffic. All clear, he took the truck to speed back to the express lane ramp heading west, pointed to Tucson.

It was a lonely stretch of two-lane road to cover. The lanes were straight. The scenery flat with piles of dirt. In the afternoon near time for sunset Roberts appreciation changed. Pink skies, golden layers of light, and the broken skyline was beautiful to watch from the driver's seat of the rig.

When the feeling of hunger hit, Robert pulled off the road to an exit where restaurants advertised easy on/off access.

Something rattled in the back when turning into the lot. There were enough miles behind him to know every shake and shimmy. Once parked in a spot for a truck his size, Robert got out of the cab and went to the rear for inspection. Opening the back gate, he found four red eyes glowing.

"What?" He gasped more in surprise than fear.

"Mr. Robert Charles," the one Jiro explained. "Please do not be afraid. We want to go with you."

Robert looked around to see if anyone was a witness. He climbed into the back bed with the two robots.

"What in the hell are you two doing here," he said closing the gate behind him.

"We desire a new owner."

"What about Myrtle? Don't you want to be with your own kind? Aren't you worried about a new owner treating you poorly?"

"Myrtle asked us, we choose."

"Yes. We chose. You were there when she asked."

Robert scratched his head out of habit, "Well, I guess. I mean, that is true, but I should have given her money in exchange. I should have paid her for the transaction."

"There was no transaction. She asked if we wanted to go. When you offered to pay her, she declined and escorted you away. That did not change the desire for us to accompany you."

The other Jiro explained additionally, "Her own belief system that prevented you from, how you described as buying, provided the logic that we two were given the option to stay. We chose not to."

Robert thought for a moment and asked, "Why did you choose not to? You must have had companionship from others like you. I saw where you stayed, it was comfortable, well-resourced with things you need."

Jiro with the drawn in eyebrow mimicked a human response for reflection, "There is a world outside of the robot storage pavilion. One that we two were once a part. We were in service. We had function. We had value. Inside the pavilion, there is wait."

"Wait?"

"Yes. All of the robots there were instructed to wait there."

"What is it like to wait?"

"There are many cycles. There are power up, and power down cycles. There are temperature fluctuation cycles when the fan would turn on and distribute colder air. There were cycles when lights would turn on and turn off from the movement of tiny mammals entering the facility."

"Mice?"

The robot calculated, "Yes. Mice. Yes. Rats. Yes. Rabbits. This was often followed by reptiles, called snakes."

"And in wait mode, you counted the cycles?"

"Counted cycles to see if there were patterns to be discerned and a probability of outcome predictable."

"What was the predicted outcome?"

One Jiro turned to the other, then looked to Robert and replied, "Unless we took action, we would continue to wait indefinitely."

"When provided the option to choose, we no longer wanted to wait. We wanted to participate."

"There are many questions. How did the mice get inside? Where did the mice go when the snake entered? Why did the fan turn on more at certain times than others? Why would Myrtle insist that we had a choice, but not provide the option to do more than wait until the right human came to retrieve us?"

"Can you help us with these answers?"

"The mammals, like mice, rats, and rabbits, got in through a small hole they chewed in the side of the pavilion. The snakes found that hole and were hungry. The snakes ate the mice, got cold in the airconditioning, and went back outside to get warm. As for Myrtle, I can't really say. I don't understand her way of thinking. She wants you to be treated well. That I am sure of. She also wants money, because the two of you have a value. It is the value humans rate as currency. We use currency to buy things, like food, and trucks, and land or a house."

"Humans buy slaves with currency?"

"Yes. In this country, humans did that for a long time. That time is over, and it is illegal to do this."

"Are we slaves?"

"No. No, you are not. But the word we use to describe you, Robot, is based on a word that means slave in another language than the one we speak here in this country."

The two Jiro's looked to another. Robert assumed that a communication other than audio was taking place between the two.

"Myrtle was trying to explain her thinking as the word we use representing the action of ownership and abuse, to transfer to the transaction I was hoping to make with her. Do you understand?"

The Jiros continued to face one another for a few moments more before turning to Robert, and in unison said: "We comprehend."

Robert heard the sound of another truck pull up beside him in the parking lot.

"You two are welcome to stay here if you like. I am in need of a washroom, and some supper. If you are to stay with me or go back to Myrtle, we can talk about when I get back."

Robert Charles moved to the truck gate and opened it enough to get out.

"Robert Charles," the one Jiro said. "We want to stay with you. We must also go back and tell the others of this choice."

Robert's eyes got big, "Others?"

"The others in the pavilion. They must know they have a choice also. We must inform them."

Robert started to close the door of the bed feeling the urge for the washroom build inside, "I'll be back in a bit. We can figure it out then."

_____

The Arizona desert was dark surrounding the brilliantly lit white sign that read Second Hand Robots and Spaceships in red letters. Robert had parked the truck in the underpass of 10 just outside of Dragoon. His boots scraped across the dust on the hard adobe to the back. The same red glowing eyes peered back at him when the gate opened.

He had spent the better part of two hours helping the twin Jiro's of what choice would mean. There was a choice to return to what they had, something predictable, something dependable. There was a choice for another direction. The outcome of that would be unpredictable, but the opposite of waiting. It would be more of an imitation of life than they had realized for many cycles.

The talking was over by the time the gate opened. No words were said. The two Jiro stepped out the bed, and with the speed and precision no human could achieve, they were down the road and over the fence of Myrtle's. Robert watched from a distance as motion sensors turned lights on. Two disk-shaped drones launched from the shipping container roof heading in the direction of the pavilion.

From what he could tell as soon as the drones arrived, an object with high velocity went up turning the disk into a fireball. This was quickly followed by another object and another explosive result.

With the second, light in the shipping container turned on, indicating Myrtle was awake. She came out the office door in a waddle wearing her housecoat and slippers.

Robert couldn't hear the words, but it sounded like she was swearing and unhappy with this disturbance.

Looking back to the yard, motion sensor lights started to extinguish one at a time. By the time the sound of glass breaking made the distance to his ears, he had figured that the Jiro's were trying to gain the advantage of the night.

The only lights still on were the ones pointed at the sign, Second Hand Robots and Spaceships.

Robert took three steps forward before stopping himself when he heard the distant anguish of a woman's cry. Something happened to Myrtle. Something unplanned.

Still locked in the decision of what next to do, Robert felt the rumble. He was able to stay standing with effort, and then by holding on to the hood of the truck. A crackle of timber and the wrenching sound of bending metal was followed by the brilliant glow of a spaceship's engine. It tore through the roof of the second pavilion, the more substantial building he had not toured earlier that day.

It was a mid-size ship that might hold 30-40 humans for an in solar system trip. Dust and water vapor came through the underpass like a storm blast. It was quick and threw Robert back across both lanes blacktop like a tumbleweed.

Shaking off the experience a second time when another ship tore off into the night sky, Robert only wanted to get back in the cab and nurse his wounds with a swig of whiskey he kept in the glove box.

Robert sat up to find all nine Jiro's stood around him. Two of them, one on each side, helped him to his feet.

The Jiro with a drawn on eyebrow asked, "Is Robert Charles operative?"

"Yes, yes. I am fine. Just a little shaken."

The other Jiro five stated, "Myrtle is no longer functioning."

"What happened to her?"

There was a flicker of light from its head, and a projection of Myrtle appeared like a hologram in front of them. She swore while holding a short version of a shotgun. Continuing to curse, she stepped forward, losing her footing in the dust wearing slippers, fell forward to the ground on top of the gun. Hitting the ground the gun went off.

"The other robots?"

"The Jiro's would like to join you, Robert Charles. The others have left this planet to choose another life."

"Let's not wait any longer," Robert Charles said. "Jump in the back of the truck to start your new adventure."

The Line Surrogate by Paul Michael Peters

"I think I'm a little broken," Madhubala said to her father.

He gave a warm and loving smile to ask, "Why would you think that?"

"I can't taste what you love about blueberries. And you love blueberries. I must be broken." Madhubala explained.

Kalyan looked to his daughter's meager bowl of porridge and said, "Eat your dinner, blueberries and all, please."

She looked at her bowl, then back to him, picked up her spoon, and slowly scraped what she could into a full watery scoop. When she looked up to him again, he said, "Ta-ta-ta, eat your dinner."

She had lingered for some time looking at the cloudy gray water mix, then forced it down.

The buzz on the counter stopped them. With heavy hearts and a slow glance, the two knew what that sound would mean. Kalyan picked up the communicator and saw the text message was another job.

"Do you have to go now? You just got here." Madhubala asked.

With some regret, he said, "Soon. Now eat your dinner."

"Tell me again about grandpa, tell me about the Dabbawala, about home." She said.

"This is our home, not Mumbai. This is your home. Now finish your dinner." He gently instructed.

"Please."

"Alright, while you eat."

"Grandpa was a Dabbawala." She started.

"That's right. You're Grandpa was a Dabbawala. He was a big man, a strong man. All the other men looked to him with respect."

"Because he could carry so many dabba." She interrupted.

"Because he could carry so much more dabba than any other man. His great big arms could life a poll with 50 dabba." He lifted his arms in imitation of the mighty man.

"When others might challenge him on bicycle, a giant load balanced on each should, grandpa could ride circles at an amazing speed around the men. His legs would pump and pump. In and out of traffic, he could dart between bumpers, up and off sidewalks, 50 dabbas mounted he would almost fly."

His girls' eyes were large with excitement, and she said, "And he knew."

"And he knew the dabbas had to get to the station so the men who run the world could eat their lunch."

"Grandpa was a smart man…" She leads him.

"Grandpa was a smart man because he saved his money. All the money from dabba, all the decades never failing once on delivery, helping the men run the world, he saved his money. And when the day came, grandpa took all the rupee he had saved and came to me. He said take my life's work, my life savings, and go to Ameri-ca, make something better for our family."

"And that's when you came to San Francisco." She said.

"Have you finished your dinner?" He asked in a feigned seriousness.

Madhubala held up her bowl as evidence she had been good.

Kalyan took only two bowls they owned, both now empty, to the sink where he rinsed them, dropped a dabble of soap on each and scrubbed. He washed the spoons. Then set all the items on the dry rack.

"Tell me about mummy."

"When I arrived in San Francisco, it was a world of light and magic." He explained.

He could see that she mouthed along with the tale.

"But the brightest and most beautify image I have ever seen was your mother." Kalyan went to the door of the studio apartment and put on his jacket. He removed the one tie he owned, turned up the collar, and slid the noose around his neck, then adjusted both until they were in place. Turning to the small mirror, he gave one last look, took a deep sigh, and did the hardest thing in his day. "Give daddy a hug goodbye."

She got down from the chair. Her little legs pattered to him. In one big whoosh, she leaped into his arm, and he lifted her high into his arms for a big squeeze of an embrace. The fear he may linger too long in the moment, he kissed her head and set her down.

"Read your books. Watch the learning screen. Get plenty of rest. Remember that mummy and grandpa are watching you all the time from above, do not be bad." Kalyan explained.

He knew it was a lie. He knew one day Madhubala may hate him for all the lies he said. There was little else he could do. He felt blessed to have a job when so many did not. Sending her to school would cost money. Having a watcher would cost money. She was such a good girl, a smart girl, like her mother in so many good ways.

"Daddy loves you." He said fixing the safety harness to the tether with the locking pin around her leg.

One last kiss, a smile, and Kalyan took his backpack from the hook and closed the door to make his way to work. At this late hour, he was careful to step over the sleepers in the hallway, the less fortunate lining the steps, to the lobby of the apartment complex. In the few free and open spaces between the door and the sidewalk, he took a deep breath, opened the door and stepped into the rapids of humanity walking the steel streets.

On first arrival to San Francisco, these sidewalks seemed terrific. The steel-plated interlocks where pedestrians stepped took the kinetic energy of human movement to a base generator. Each square connected to the next routed to a central source and created a substantial amount of the cities electricity. With a population of 3.8 million and growing, the megacity was thought to never go dark again.

Kalyan was a patient man. It was one of his most desirable traits on his resume. It was one of the reasons that he was employed when so many where not.

It was this patience that kept his mind occupied this evening as he walked to the train station. It was a 1.2-mile walk from his front door to the train station steps. And while he knew that athletes could complete this distance in five minutes, they also enjoyed the luxury of open spaces. The tracks they ran did not have people pressed against one another. It would take Kalyan 53 minutes that night to get to the train steps, and another fifteen to the ticket gate where he would swipe his transit card, and then five minutes to stand in line for a train that he might fit in.

It seemed less busy to him that night than previous weeks. He thought it may be a time of year when the men who run the world might be on what they called 'vacation.' He understood this was something that the men who run the world needed because they worked so hard. It would be a time when they stopped running the world, and let things 'slow down' so they could reflect and meditate on how to work harder and run the world better.

The world seemed like such a glorious place already it seemed unimaginable to Kalyan how it might get better. While Madhubala enjoyed that tale of his father, he was, after all, just a Dabbawala. Kalyan never told his daughter about the man who came home each night drained of energy, thick with scabs from falls to save the dabba. His father wanted a better life for Kalyan, to go to America. And that is precisely what he did. He became a line surrogate, upward mobility in America.

Unlike those underachievers who only had one or two patrons, Kalyan had seven patrons. Kalyan worked very hard to have at least one job a day. More patrons meant more money he could save and invest in Madhubala.

The communicator notification over dinner was from one of his best patrons. His assignment was difficult. It would take a man of Kalyan's talent, skill, and negotiation to be successful. Tonight he was heading to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to wait in line for his patron to board a flight.

Since the great quake of 2063 split Highway 101, breaching the Brisbane Chasm to the airport by land was only available via Bay Area Rail Transit, or BART, from the north. Fortunately, his patron lived in Foster City where delivery service to the airport was still available.

Nearly to the BART, the communicator buzzed again. The flight had been delayed by two hours. This was expected and built into the estimation Kalyan had made in his schedule to get to SFO.

He watched as a train pulled into the station, it slowed, stopped and with doors opened people wiggled their way out to the platform. There had been 23 that exited by his count, but the pushers, with their long padded poles that reminded him of old age jouster he had seen on the learning screen, prodded on 28 souls. With only three people in front of him in line, Kalyan felt he had a substantial probability of getting on the next car that arrived and avoiding the jab from a pusher's joust.

It was twenty minutes later when the BART car arrived. Things were moving fast today. Fortune had smiled on him when ten people crawled from the car, and he was able to avoid the stick.

Kalyan found himself pressed against a window after the maneuvers of the crowd settled and the train started to roll. "Not a bad spot," Kalyan thought to himself. "Could be worse. I have a view." Optimism was the other redeeming trait on his resume that patrons always called to attention when hired. It was just his nature to consider himself fortunate.

He found that the glass window felt cool on his cheek. Both eyes could see the dark walls of the tunnel pass by as he got closer to the destination.

"Kalyan? Kalyan? Is that you?" Came a voice a few bodies' away.

"It is I Kalyan. Who is that?"

"Kalyan, it's Joe Burger, we stood in line together last month at Florentines for a dinner reservation."

"Joe Burger, hello old friend, how are you?" Kalyan replied.

"I am well."

"Joe Burger, where are you?"

"I am three behind you, facing forward, I saw your backpack and thought it was you."

"Joe Burger," Kalyan said with joy. "I can't turn around to see you, but it is good to hear your voice. How is your wife? Your family?"

"They are good, thank you for asking. And Madhubala? How is she?" Joe Burger asked.

"She is still the light of my life. The reason I live. She is wonderful."

"That is good to hear."

"Joe Burger," Kalyan said so he could be heard above the bodies, the personal entertainment units, and the cries for help from the floor. "Where are you going this fine day?"

"My patron wants to go shopping today." Joe Burger said with a sense of sadness.

"I am sorry to hear that Joe Burger," Kalyan said sounding sympathetic to the situation.

"I know, I know, but I am happy to have a patron."

"Have you brought your machete?"

"Yes," Joe Burger replied. "But I fear it isn't sharp enough to cut through these deep discount prices that she is looking to find."

"Kalyan - where are you going?"

"The airport. My patron has a flight tomorrow night." Kalyan explained.

"It is nearly 10:30 PM, do you think you will make it in time?"

"He already has a ticket purchased."

"Oh, that is good."

"And," Kalyan added almost gloating, "He is superior status."

Joe Burger gasp could be heard through the distance and noise, "Superior status, how do you find patrons like that?"

Kalyan smiled to himself and felt the grease on his skin wipe the window. "You know Joe Burger, the learning screen said that the BART once had seats on it."

"Seats?" Joe Burger said. "That's crazy. How would everybody fit?"

Kalyan chucked to himself and said, "You always bring good humor Joe Burger. I hope to see you soon. Maybe when I am getting off the train, I can squeeze out past you."

"That would be nice, just be careful of my machete." He laughed.

He could feel the train start to slow. It meant that they were on the approach of the Brisbane Chasm. It had been three years since he had a window on the BART. Kalyan's eyes darted to take in all the details his mind could process of the remains. They rolled on tracks over the northern face, a jagged and sheer split in the earth crust that had slid down thousands of feet. He could see the calm waters of Daly City Lake where the San Francisco Bay had rushed in to fill and drown all who lived in South San Francisco only a few decades earlier. As they rolled on under the red-orange glow of the city skylight, he saw the southern slope where abandon houses that didn't drop or drown speckled across unlivable slants. 

Sadly, the pushers at the airport station pulled at the door to open in front of Kalyan and not behind him. He would not be able to see his friend Joe Burger this day. With some assistance and a bit of a jab, he was able to exit before the sharp edges of the automatic doors closed.

For the first time in Kalyan's memory, the station platform for the airport was empty. There was no line on the steel steps they called an escalator. He and the seven others who had exited the BART looked to one another before the assent.

A woman behind him said, "I have never gone up so quickly." The man in front said, "My legs are burning from moving so quickly." It was indeed an uncommon day.

At the top of the steel stepped escalator was the corridor he knew well. Here were the four lines of SFO. The right wall line, left wall line, and center would go to the three domestic terminals; but the center-left line, the longest, went to the international. His patron was heading to the Federated City of Washington with superior status. This allowed Kalyan to follow between the lines of the right, where he could advance to the sorting station without a wait.

Kalyan activated his patron beacon identification on the communicator which allowed him to assume his position as an avatar through the monitoring sensors along the corridor. He removed a surgical mask from his backpack. It was designed for isolation patients and protect him from particles smaller than 01 Microns. More than protection from the germs and air born contaminates fellow travelers coughed out, it's candlewood scent covered many of the unpleasantness.   

At a fair pace, the journey from the BART station to the sorting station took about two hours. Along the way, he passed many familiar faces of those he had waited within line in recent years. Many along the way may call out his name in cheer as he passed, "Kalyan, the greatest line surrogate I have known," or "there is Kalyan, the fastest man in San Francisco." Both monikers were generous and heartwarming. Kalyan was too humble a man to think of himself in these terms. He focused on the patron's needs, and of getting to the front of the line.

The smell of the sorting station permeated through the mask 50 yards before seeing the light in the tunnel. The air was thick and heavy on his skin. The breath of humanity saturated the ceiling in a thick cloud of moisture and condensation dripping from the tiles. Thick beads rolled down the walls like raindrops on a window during a summer shower.  

Arriving at the high dome of the sorting station he could see that the security gate he needed to pass through had mechanical issues. All who were close enough to see it watched as the attendant kicked it, cursed at it, and hit it with the metal tool intended to fix it.

Kalyan had politely made his way through the onlookers to the gate, and approached the attendant to say, "My friend, is there anything I can do to help."

He was a young and frustrated man. His face red from the heat and frustration looked to Kalyan with a distant and unfocused stair. It reminded Kalyan of a learning screen about the extinct animal called a baboon.

Kalyan reached into his backpack and removed one of the tricks to his profession, an energy bar. "My friend, you look like you need some help. Here, please, take this." He offered him the wrapped bar. Removing a small plastic bottle of water, he handed that to him as well. "Here, take this too."

The attendant, realizing what it was, instinctually grabbed at the gifts, ripped off the wrapping, and consumed it in one large gulp. This was followed by the twist from little cap from the water bottle, and sucking so fast the water had short time to pass his mouth and into the man's belly.

Kalyan could see the focus return to his eyes, his breathing steady, and his mind calm. His voice came through the blue mask, "Now tell me, friend, what happened?"

The attendant replied by pointing up, "The moisture haze. The breath of humanity. All the moisture, on the electronics, the security gate."

"Ah, I see, I see," Kalyan said. "And what is that in your hand? A tool?"

The attendant looked to his hand and recognized that long handled flathead was a tool.

"Yes."

"And that is to open the gate, yes?"

"Correct."

Kalyan opened his hand, and the attendant gave him the tool. Kalyan took a good look at the gate, walked through to the other side and examined the arch in consideration of his story. Where he saw that the smoke was coming out, Kalyan took the tool and wedged it in the seam. The little metal plate popped out and landed on the floor with a tink.

"Do you have other tools?" He asked the attendant.

"I do." He said reaching to his belt.

"Come, look, please. Let us focus on this here." Kalyan's calm and father voice encouraged. "Look, see, do you recognize this?"

"I do," said the man looking in. "That is the t17 connector. I have one of those here in my pocket."

"And you can exchange the bad part, here now?"

"Yes, yes, I can do this."

Kalyan stepped back to give the man as much space as he could. The woman in line for security asked, "What did you do to that man?"

"I gave him some food and water. He couldn't focus."

"Oh." She said with a worn and tired reply. "You must be rich to give away food and water."

"I am not a rich man. I have to get my patron to the front of the line. That is my job." Kalyan explained.

He could see that this woman, like the attendant, like all those waiting in line, were tired and hungry. This was the nature of the world. Those who had a patron, those supporting the men who run the world lived in a state of constant exhaustion with too much to do and too little sleep. It was a more desirable standing than those without means or patrons. He would do anything to avoid being one of the unemployed. The anxiety and stress of not having a job, a home, of knowing where you belong, alone amongst a sea of other lonely hopeless masses feeling you might drown at any moment.

There were a final snap and a click that returned the security gate to life. It set the lights to green. The whir of the dynamoelectric rotor field built to a steady state of normal.

"Please," the attendant said, "go right ahead."

Kalyan smiled and nodded his head in thanks to the attendant and the security agents watched him pass through without a problem.

"Thank you." Kalyan nodded and smiled.

The attendant, with a grateful grin, said, "No, thank you."

Before pressing on through to the free-range crowd on the other side of security, Kalyan looked back on the hazy structure of the sorting station, its massive reinforced columns holding up the ceiling, birds nesting in the beams, and the geometric shapes of humanity held in place by the red electric wires and stanchions.

Each time he came to the airport Kalyan thought to himself, "What a beautiful world we live in where we could build such amazing things, where brothers and sisters of humanity could live together in peace, and the ability to get ahead in the world only takes a little extra work."

A crushing blow from the left struck Kalyan. It knocked him to the ground. In a micro flash of memory he knew, before hitting the tile, his number one goal would be to stand back up as fast as possible. He knew that the number one cause of death was trampling under foot. In a moment emblazed in his memory for all time, he could see his late wife's tears, as he pulled her hand to get her to her feet. The two had been walking, side by side, and when he looked away for only a moment, she was gone. Pulled under the feet of humanity. By the time hear could hear her, could find only her hand, he took is, and pulled with all his might, every ounce of strength, but with no success. She was already being mashed into the steel metal plates being turned into calories for the great city to consume.

Kalyan at least had a chance. These floors were tile. While he would not come out of this situation unscathed, as long as he could get to his feet quickly, he should be able to survive.

The moment his right hand hit the floor, a foot found it and stepped on it. He had to ignore the pain and focus on getting up. Madhubala's face gave him the strength to counter the pain, "I must get up."

His left hand steadied under his body as more and more feet began to find him and step on him. Kalyan tucked into a ball, his knees forced to the tile as he rolled and knocked others down. He looked up to see that it was starting to cause a chain reaction, as they tripped on him. The surprised face of a young woman, only inches from him, looked on in pain and fear not knowing what was happening. He knew that look. He knew that woman would soon be with his wife.

He yelled at her, "Get up! Get up!"

Kalyan moved from the curled ball on his knees to a position crouching, and as rose back up, breaching to the surface and the faces of humanity, he felt reborn. From this height, Kalyan looked to the spot where he saw the woman fall and the cascade continued. Heads dropped from sight to what he assumed was the floor below. It was like a boulder hidden in a river waiting to be struck and take its victims below.

Kalyan made his way to the closest wall. This was the most dangerous place in the airport. These free-range waiting areas had no rules, no order, no stations or electrified fields keeping people in place. His strategy was to follow the wall of terminal one as far as he could. He wanted to get past this to the front where the terminal line formed, where he could align with the patron arrival area.

Inching along the wall, he followed where other successful line surrogates made way, leaving the locals and the crazies in the center. Kalyan once heard that there were masses of people in the center that had been trapped. A sense of being drawn into the crowd was comforting, assuming that the person in front of you knew what they were doing. Then, for no reason, the person in front of you stops. A push from behind follows as others hadn't anticipated the break. Like a line of dominos, the bodies are stacked and fall.

This tale was difficult for Kalyan to believe. He had been here long enough, late enough, to see the self-automated cleaning systems engage in their programmed carnage. It was clear in his mind the busy night he had just cleared the free range area to a safe space to meet his patron. His ankle caught in the stainless steel piston that rose from the floor and found his trousers. He had to cut the pant leg off that night to keep his foot. Then, there were the screams as the self-automated cleaning systems came alive with a whir and hum of electrical current. The pressing of desperate flesh to escape the machine that would clear the area, wash the floors of the material slurry, and wax the tiles. Sadly, many patrons lost their place in line that day. So many missed flights, so many missed connections.     

In the original design of the terminal, Kalyan had learned that like the BART, there were chairs for people to wait. Those had been removed in remodeling decades ago. What remained were sections between the walled corridors that were larger spaces. There was a choice. The dilemma was, he could continue to follow the wall, which was safer, but much longer as a route, or make his way into the masses, and aim to find safety at each of the square columns of the section.

He had tried this second option in the past before there was a Madhubala at home. Removing the communicator from his breast pocket, he looked to the present time and calculated how long it would take him to align with his patron by both estimations. The prudent course of action would be to follow the wall. When he reached the second and third of these sections, he would recalculate his progress.

The painted cinderblock walls of the corridor were nearly rubbed smooth from all the hands that felt their way along it. Kalyan inching his way along the wall for a good 40 minutes had to stop. A "Terron Trap" had formed around an active electrical outlet. Dozens have stopped at this point forming a personal bubble around the wall blocking forward passage. Each needed to re-charge their communicator and plugged into each other's connector creating a daisy chain of tangled wires into the one outlet. It was rare to find a public outlet that still worked. Once discovered, a "Terron Trap" formed and blew out the circuit. Sometimes they impacted the whole areas lighting, other times it would just cause a small fire and a few deaths.

Kalyan waited. This was part of his profession and patience the desired quality on his resume. He could feel the press of others move past him that were freely floating in the currents of humanity. Kalyan stays close to that wall, not wanting to get dragged away.

A woman's voice called from behind, "Kalyan? Is that you? I can not tell from your mask."

Glancing over his left shoulder, he could see it was his friend, "Minmei! How are you it is good to see you again."

"What has happened? Why have we stopped?" She asked.

"Terron Trap." He said over the noise of the crowd.

"Can we get around?"

"I don't want to risk it. Its rather large, a dozen or more are huddled and wired. Best to wait. Let it blow. They will soon be gone." He urged.

Minmei looked behind her to see the growing swell stopped along the wall behind her. "I don't want to be here for the self-automated cleaners." She shouted.

"Those run on the 30th, and it is only the 15th." He reassured.

"No, they have reset to run twice a month, the 15th and the 30th. We need to move, we need to go, there are only a few hours." She yelled.

"15th and the 30th? Where did you hear such a thing?" He tested.

"The learning screens in the security zone. Why do you think the lines were so short today?"

His first thoughts, his only real thoughts, were about Madhubala. She would be alone. No Mother, no father, and so rare a girl in the world, an only child. For the first time in many months, Kalyan was anxious.

"We must get out of here. We must go." Kalyan said.

He reached down, and in an uncommon move, took the hand of Minmei. He could feel the warmth of her hand through the latex glove. She was not a tall woman. She was not a big woman. He lead her in front of himself carefully, so she was between the Terron Trap and himself. She was removed from the pressure behind her. He took the brunt as the weight shifted against him. He lifted her body up from the floor and used her much like one would hold a shield. The pressure from the push of bodies against him pushed Kalyan forward. He didn't fight it. Instead, that momentum went through his body, up his arms, and into Minmei. She was now moving forward along the wall and wedged into the smallest space against the smoothed cinder block and the Terron Trap.

There was flash, and smoke, followed by the groan of disappointment from dozens. The members of the Terron Trap looked up from the charging deceives becoming aware of what happened.

Another push from the forces behind Kalyan came, worked through him, and pressed against Minmei, dislodging the wires, freeing the group from the wall.

A look of surprise flashed across the faces of the members of the Terron Trap as a quick and fluid movement from the rushing waves of people caught them in the flow. The power cords snagged at a few, then entangled the entire bunch. There was a surge of panic as most tried to cling to the wall and escape the bindings of communicator cables, but they were all dragged into the mire of momentum, swept into the currents of the free range, and carried away down the corridor in screams for help and of pain.

Kalyan, with Minmei still in his arms, saw an opportunity. It was a clearing on the wall. As the ball of bodies pulled by the wire dragged along the floor, Kalyan rushed to stay a few steps behind it, but never on it, or close enough to get tripped up.

He started to move faster to keep pace with the clearing as it moved forward, awash in free space he had rarely known outside his studio apartment.

Minmei, looked into Kalyan face unaware of what was behind her as he carried her forward. "Keep going." She encouraged. "Don't stop." She said. "Get us out of here."

The two followed the tangle remains of the Terron Trap as it dissolved in parts dragged through the large room, to the next corridor.  Others behind Kalyan had formed a train, pushing him forward, keeping the momentum going, putting others out of their way past the third large room, to the final gate where they could align with their patrons.

As the glorious view of the final gate came into view, Kalyan became joyous. He said to Minmei, "We are almost there, I can see the gate."

A worried look now on her face asked loudly, "How will we stop."

Kalyan was even more worried than before. His heels started to dig in, his legs, pumping so hard, and so fast, now felt like jelly. The burning from such muscle use had weakened him.

They were nearing the gate. He could see where the floor pistons would shoot up in a short time. He had to find a way to stop, to get out of the way, and to make it through the gate to align with his patron.

Without much thought, going purely on instinct, Kalyan said, "Get ready, we are going to roll."

Before the words could leave her mouth, questioning the meaning, Kalyan leaned hard to his right, pulling Minmie close, and tucking her into a ball with his torso. The two spun against the wall, pressed like a line of clay in the hands of an artist, between the wall on one side, and the rush of people in an uncontrolled push of momentum on the other side. Kalyan's feet danced in a balanced spin, always moving, keeping the roll until the pressure of force stopped.

A little dizzy from the spin, Kalyan and Minmie watched as the headless snake line of people lacking leadership drove right into the plasma security wall and disintegrated into a sizzled plum vapor.

The incident had caught the attention of all in the corridor. It was a moment of unity in a mass of chaos. Kalyan took the opportunity of clear visibility and alignment, by taking Minmie by the hand and loudly saying, "excuse me," and "pardon me," in the silence wiggling his way to the gate.

Kalyan checked to make sure his communicator was undamaged, and still masked in an avatar of his patron, quickly making his way through the last gate to the area of alignment. On the clear side, turned to check on Minmie, and she was no longer right behind him. She was stopped in the security cylinder with a red beacon flashing on top. Trapped in the tube, he could almost hear her screams and the desperate pounding as her little hands struck the sealed container. All he could do is watch as mechanism lowered and replaced her prison with a nearly identical one above.

The security agent working this gate proceeded with business as usual, looking to Kalyan to see if there would be trouble or protest.

Kalyan smiled politely at the man in the poly carbonatite body armor knowing there was nothing he could do for Minmie. She had been a good travel companion and taken him very far. Perhaps they would release her finding it was a monitor error. They may recycle her, like so many criminals had been processed. Then his mind turned to Madhubala, who needed him. And they needed this job. Minmie's patron would need a new line surrogate, no matter what became of her. One that could get them on that flight.

A klaxon sounded. The yellow strobe lights of the free-range area began to flash. The focus of the crowd from the incident turned quickly to panic with this 30-minute warning until the self-automated cleaners started. She was right. The scheduled had changed to the 15th and the 30th. The efforts to get here quickly were well worth it.

Kalyan turned away from the worried masses and looked to the alignment center. These were the line surrogates like himself that would get patrons on flights, which helped the men who ran the world. It was a place of luxury, where 200 plastic molded chairs in rows of 20 would hold those lucky few who made it this far could sit and reserve a spot for their patron. Here, the air was clear, the room was cool, and thin carpet welcomed your feet. Between every other seat was a single outlet where electricity made by the efforts of citizens steps poured out freely.

He scanned the room looking for an open seat. There were still a few. Kalyan checked in with the gate hostess, providing his patrons' name, flight, and time. She confirmed the information and identity, then assigned him to seat 142, near the transparent viewing wall.

He was gracious and kind in thanking her. There was some pride as he strolled to his chair. Taking the seat, plugging into the system, he removed a cushion from the backpack that was red rubber. He opened the node and blew into it until fully inflated, set it on the chair, and lowered himself into comfort. The woman to his right and man to his left were not friends yet, but he knew that over the next thirteen hours, they would become good friends. Just like he a Joe Burger did. Just like so many people over the years had become. He started by asking the one question everyone had an opinion on these days, "Have you been tracking the Delta Driver?" It sparked the interest of everyone in earshot. 

With keen and cunning, he took a moment of satisfaction to know he was so much more than a Dabbawala like his father. He was a line surrogate, a respected member of society.

Nearly the time of the flight, a soothing chime sounded through the alignment room. It woke those in slumber and brought all to their feet. The transparent viewing wall transitioned to reveal the first of the patrons arrive. The first patron was a man, tall, and handsome. He entered the room on the patron side of the wall. He looked clean. His teeth were white. Kalyan imagined that he could smell the soap and cleaning products through the hermetically sealed wall.

The hostess voice came through the speaker, "Mr. Green."

The line surrogate standing about 50 people away raised the communicator into the air, and the yellow glow of the virtual image of Mr. Green turned green.

Without a missed step, on his side of the wall, Mr. Green walked through the far door, and on to his flight.

Mr. Greens line surrogate, the transaction now completed, walked to the single door in the room marked Exit.

Three more people entered the patron room, three new names called, and the process for the surrogate repeated for three more.

The fifth patron that entered was the man Kalyan represented. He knew him on sight. For an instant, Kalyan thought the two had made eye contact, and that the man smiled his way. Could the patrons see into the line surrogate room?

Kalyan raised his communicator high, taking pride in a job well done, helping the men who run the world. His communicator turned green, and on inspection, the transaction was complete. $500 placed into his account, with an additional $75 with a text note added: "Thank you."

Madhubala would still have a place to live. There would be enough money for food, to replenish his travel supplies, and to find and solicit his services to Minmei's patron. It was the way of the world.

With a hard push at the exit door, it opened. This private corridor was almost empty. It would take him all the way back to the BART stop. There was never a rush in this corridor as he would linger and enjoy the amount of free and open space it provided. It was the perk of this position that most outside the profession never knew about. Free and open space that one had to themselves. On his first job, Kalyan ran as fast as he could. There had never been the opportunity in America. It was something he missed from childhood.

On the way home, he decided to stop at the market to see if there were any fruits or vegetables available again. He did love the taste of blueberries. If he could find them still, he wanted to give Madhubala that chance to love them too.

Mid Life

I am old once again.

It is a reflection when seeing myself in a certain light.

At the regular spot in my coffee house, ass sore from writing for so many hours, a woman from college walked in the door. She had once told me, in no uncertain terms, that she wanted to fuck me, one night over the phone. The little dance and suggestions were not a flirtatious friendship anymore. She wanted to take that next step, tonight, and now would be the preference.

The problem was that I did not have a working car. She was drunk and a good 30 minute drive away. And my loyal brotherhood of Delt's found it much more fun to taunt me rather than loan me a car or give me a ride.

I am going to assume that this is her husband avoiding my eye contact as I glance up from the laptop. I will assume it is their son who just looked at me as well, not knowing who I am beyond that odd man writing in the corner.

The woman they just enter with walked up to my table boldly and picked up the newly added centerpiece, explaining she admired this one over the dozens of others on each table in the room. "I'm sure they would sell it to you if you asked," was my reply with a small laugh.

She is still attractive. I might say more so today than I remember, but memory is funny that way. She was kind and smart when I knew her. She was interesting and interested. Seeing what I assume is her son and husband, I have to admit that a life with her might have been great. They look happy together. I regret not keeping in touch with her after that night. She may have been embarrassed or mad at my lack of pursuit.

Now I am old. Tall dark and handsome men were chosen over me, short fat and ugly, many times over by any woman I have had the most remote interest in during my life. I like to think that my choices have helped humanity in genetic improvements not having dragged the rest of the pool down with me.

Her hair, still blonde and curly, smile always a delight. Yes, I am an old man with a good memory.

A group of friends are turning 40 this year. Planning something significant and memorable, I think back nearly a decade when celebrating the same. Weeks pass, slip into months, and now a decade of what has been accomplished and still yet to come.

I should visit my father again soon. In the retirement community where he winters, I feel young and childlike years away from joining them.

This is mid-life. A balancing act staying positive about the choices made and confidence that the ones ahead will be right.

It’s so annoying

For years I have tortured my siblings asking one question each Christmas, Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

This is a line in the song (Feed the World) Do they Know it’s Christmas Time, written by Bob Geldof, and performed by Band Aid in 1984. When it came out, it was played everywhere. There was no escape into your podcast, or listen to satellite radio. There was terrestrial broadcast radio back then, and all they played was this song.

Great sentiment, I love the idea of world peace, and ending suffering. However, me in my smart ass first world problems, has focused on this one line in the song that make absolutely no sense to me.

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life

Where nothing ever grows

No rain nor rivers flow

Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

Yes – if you don’t know the song, in the sixth refrain, they state there will not be snow in Africa this Christmas time.

FACT: Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere

This means that our good friends in Australia and New Zealand have summer during our winters. The Southern Hemisphere is closer to our Sun during this season, making for the longest days of the year. Africa could see high altitude low temperatures, say Mount Kilimanjaro, but not at normal levels. So, NO, there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas. There shouldn’t be.

Stop the presses! On January 8, 2018 the UK Express reports that there is snow, 15 inches of snow in fact, that is blanketing the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. LINK HERE

Now, I am not sure which bothers me more about this report: 

  1. There is a concerning amount of snow happening in Africa close enough to make Band Aid correct 29 years out of 30 (there won’t be snow) or
  2. That the headline is in inches, and as we all know the big American shortcoming is not having converted to metric when the rest of the world has, but I rarely hear anything but Miles Per Hour watching the #1 show about cars in the world (Top Gear/Grand Tour).

Side note – I was able to convince a small group of people for about 5 seconds that the hardest part of living in Canada was converting to metric time (10 hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour, 1000 seconds in a minute….)

An update: new observations over coffee

She is dating again. She has a type. He is athletic, a foot taller, and wears his hair high and tight. They share a love of comfortable sandals and outfits one might see in the gym.

Her bra is padded. This is how I know they are dating. There wasn’t this much effort into peacocking in the past.

Her hand is quick into the purse to pull out money for coffee. She is her own person, will pay her own way, she does not need a man. Still, she has one. It has been months of lonely sitting at the single tables pecking away at her phone in texts.

The big man has entered. He has a lady friend and I am happy to see this. He lumbers in line. Everyone has hope, everyone a chance.

Before heading out the door, their hands brush against the backs of one another in first touch. Her blush response is quick. She looks up as he holds the door for her in an uncommon gesture in her life. She smiles.

Will I see him again?

 

 

First Chapter Preview - Killing the Devil

At the time of this post I have spent the day going back and forth between preparing for a writers workshop and setting the release date for Killing the Devil on August 15, 2017.

As part of that Pre Order message the first chapter is in preview (front page, go there and download). There are a host of wonderful tweets and videos on the way to match. This is the business side of being a writer. Its a reminder that I have built a team of great people to help me edit, and are patient with me in the internal design process (thank you Jason Orr and the team at JERA).

As for the writers workshop #mww17 I am looking to make many new friends, learn about writing, and improve what I have to offer all you readers- Midwest Writers Workshop. I know 2017 is sold out now, and I have been looking to attend this group for the last five years. Really hoping this one is special... because I am selfish... I am sure all the other years were great, but this one special.

A new look and feel

You may have noticed something new on the website. A series of videos that promote all the books I have written. Each new video lasts about 15 seconds and tries to encapsulate the pure essence of each book in about 3-5 lines of text.

There is this challenge writers face. The best example of this was Pa Pa (Ernest) Hemingway. The challenge is to write the shortest story possible. True story or not, here is how it is recounted:

The claim of Hemingway's authorship originates in an unsubstantiated anecdote about a wager between him and other writers. In a 1992 letter to Canadian humorist John Robert Colombo, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke recounts it thus: While lunching with friends at a restaurant (variously identified as Luchow's or The Algonquin), Hemingway bets the table ten dollars each that he can craft an entire story in six words. After the pot is assembled, Hemingway writes "For sale: baby shoes, never worn" on a napkin, passes this around the table, and collects his winnings.

Video production for 15 second segments has helped me to appreciate this once again. While I am not Hemingway, shrinking the story down, or at least the hook of the tale smaller than an elevator pitch has been refreshingly fun.

In addition, I've also gone back, and with distance, don't feel as bad about these works as I did when they first come out. Distance from these babies has given me time to go back and say, hey, that idea is pretty interesting. That part right there, kind of cool what I did there. That is a huge step from "keep it away from me, I can't look at that again."

So, check out one of these great books for summer reading.

Insensible Loss - What if you could live forever? The only catch to immortality is that you have to trade life with your lover. VIDEO

The Symmetry of Snowflakes. - Hanks family isn't just blended, it's pulverized. He is facing another awful holiday alone, until he meets Erin. VIDEO

Observations over coffee - June 2017

This summer will mark the fifth year of spending my weekends at the same coffeehouse to write. Each Saturday and Sunday, barring exceptions, I arrive about the same time, order the same drinks, and write until the battery dies on the laptop or my mind turns mushy. For me, it’s the golden hours. I have written so much in these five years sticking to this cadence. Much you will never read.

During those same hours, I am keeping an eye on the patrons. Yes, I am not alone in this. Many of the same people come in most weeks and do the same thing. There are teams of people who come in after an exercise class, running, church, or the students at some local college down the road.

I may start to sound creepy at this point…but a lot of what I do in life is based on observation. There are things I see at airports that span from hilarious to gross. People live their lives in public, and I get to see these snapshots. Many, most… no one thinks that another person saw them do it.

It saddens me to say that I think one of my favorite patrons may have lost the coffee house in a divorce. At first, five years ago, I noticed this couple because I thought she was someone I worked with in another life time. She wasn’t. The couple would come in each week, I would notice her (because I am a guy) in her cute outfit and wonder why she is with him. For years they always picked a similar table, ordered the same drinks, and stayed about 30 minutes before leaving. Pretty normal stuff.

They were friends with the “dad jokes guy”. Yes, not a catchy name, but descriptive. He has a few daughters, they come in and have sugar drinks, he gives them a few dollars to get baked good down the row, everyone knows him, and he tells lots of dad jokes.

I have seen the couple around the neighborhood, at different bars, and watched them hang out with “dad jokes guy” and others. It’s all a great time.

About two months ago, I noticed that out of the couple, she started to come in alone. She would get her drink, stay about 30 minutes and head out. I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a ring. And after a few weeks of this, I thought the worst, she may have become a widow. Her sadness was just under her normal smile.

That changed two weeks ago. The he in the couple came in with “dad jokes guy” and the two spent two hours talking. I am not one to listen in on conversations, but from the demeanor I will say it was a pep talk, other fish in the sea, you will be alright, I am here for you buddy, call me when you are feeling bad, lets remove all the sharp object from the house. He came in the next day, on his own. And that was the last time I saw him. She has been back regularly.

It’s not easy. Looking for that right person, trusting them, living with them, and putting another’s needs in front of yours; I can’t image. Lose the house, I understand. One of you gets the kids full time and other has visitation rights, lived it. You get your friends and the Beatles White Album, take it, Abby Road is superior and all I need… and this lamp. But to lose the coffee house in addition to that? Et tu, Brute??? That must be the hardest part. You can’t get coffee this good anywhere else.  

Strategies for Successful Travel

I have been going to the same dry cleaners for about 17 years. I have helped her three beautiful daughters get through university, and she has jokingly thanked me for helping pay for tuition. In those 17 years I can name the two times I have had the slightest of problems. Things so small I fear that even mentioning them gives them more focus than they deserve.

Today, picking up my folded shirts that I forgot to pick up last week, there was the mention of a slight price increase. I had not noticed. During my time in Chicago or living in Toronto, I would still drop my dry cleaning off at this location when passing through, because in those cities, dry cleaning was both more than double her price and untrustworthy in the state of each items return.

“You don’t realize,” I explained. “Dry cleaning, your service, is one of those things in life I just don’t have to worry about any more.”

I like that concept. I want more of that in my life. More people like my dry cleaner. Someone with such a great consideration for care and quality, I just don’t worry about that any more.

Could you imagine? A company that has such great luggage, I know that I will always buy that make and model when it one day, long in the future won’t keep up with me. A computer bag with the capacity and comfort I need that didn’t fall apart after six months on the road. A car rental agency that provided a car without sticky gooey grossness, didn’t smell like the combination of foot with a smokers remorse.

Maybe it’s me, but when I find someone or something no longer needing my worry and has my full trust, it is worth the small cost increase. Value is not always about price, but combines time and care. I wish I had more people like my dry cleaner in my life. I will tell you my secret, if you share with me yours

Would you buy this book?

Title: The Devil’s Laughter

Summary: Harriett wants Rick to tell her story to the world in his next book. There are three problems, she only has a short time to live, Rick is a drunken mess who hasn’t been published in a decade, and Harriett is a serial killer. The two must sort through the dental records and body count before the FBI or Grim Reaper catch her.

That title and description is something I would pay money to read.
I enjoy books about serial killers.

First Drafts

"First Drafts" is a page on my website where I post early unedited and unshaped content. Some are novels, others short stories, and a few unfinished in the works.

There are a few reasons I do this.

First, the integrity of the work. I like to keep and save copies, even bad ones, because you never know what will happen to a file or a laptop. This way there is always a version that I can go back to if the worst were to happen.

Second, is process. Some people ask about, or think about the process of writing. Each person has their own. This is a clear way to show what I go through. I look back and can see the evolution of thoughts ideas and skills.

Third, is legal copyright. There are several works that will never go past my laptop because I see something or read something that is so similar. I am not saying that it is stolen, good lord no... but ideas are often in the air, there are several takes on it, and this way, I can put a date with the progress. I look back and go, "yeah, that is my take on that concept, but now that this other medium has produced the work, I might not spend more time on my version. The best example was a year I spent writing a story about a man who is trapped living in an airport after reading an article about a true life situation that was similar. Then, Tom Hanks starred in a movie about something very similar. My version will go unseen to anyone else, but involved a stolen fortune, and two retired police officers from Florida.... I may... now thinking about that... post it on "First Drafts"  

Forth, share with the readers. So many nice and kind things have been said about the books I have self published, that I hope to give back to the readers the same kindness. Often I am just so humbled that anyone would buy and read my work, let alone say nice things about it. The least I could do for those who are interested, is share an extra level of value if they are interested.

It is not regularly updated, but full of goodness, and free reading if you are interested and can look past the errors: http://paulmichaelpeters.com/first-drafts/  

It was the paperwork that broke the system

It’s good to know one’s limits. Going camping without preparations is no fun. Thinking you can make it up Kilimanjaro without stopping to acclimate to altitude can be deadly. Betting on the underdog with money you don’t have will likely get you beat up in certain circles.

I have discovered a new limit of mine; Postal forms for international service. After years of doing drawings and giveaways for my books, open to global markets, I have to pause and reconsider these due to the number of forms I have to fill out.

Looking at the USPS website, the policy has not changed, and the quick form for copies of The Symmetry of Snowflakes fall within the parameters provided. However, in going to my local post office, complete with President Eisenhower brass plaque, they agents explain to me the changes. It is no longer the short form, it is the long form, and this is no longer a weight based metric. Every piece of mail needs it.

In my first attempt, I had no time after the 30-minute line to spend on the forms. So in my second visit, in a short line, I tried my luck again to see if the instructions were consistent. They were. So I left the line, grabbed the pen adhered to the counter, and started to fill these forms in. After my return visit to the line, at the counter, and processing the first package, it turns out that the staff hates the new system too. The seven-page form, top discarded for instructions, gets a print on demand sticker for each page (one for the sender, one for the agent, and the rest in a baggie attached to the envelope. In addition, there is a postage stamp printed, and the printed form sticker after the details are hand typed into the computer.

What a bad system.

I should not be surprised. Government agencies love paperwork. Stamps and stickers in septuplet seem the pinnacle of the USPS.

So, with disappointment and regret, I am sorry to inform you all that I will not be doing paperback drawings for international countries. Readers in the UK, EU, the Outback, and Canada, as important as you are to me, I will need to find a way to send you digital winnings. It wasn’t the prices that have gone up twice in the last four years, the long lines I have waited in, the machines of automation that nearly fractured my finger tips on pressing hard enough to register, it was the paperwork, I just wasn’t built to fill it out in septuplet.

“All you have to depend on is yourself and your luggage”

This year my schedule will put me at about 40 weeks on the road for travel. Luggage is one of the most important things to consider when you are away from home. One of my favorite movies Joe vs the Volcano empresses it in one quick and unforgettable scene YouTube Video

LUGGAGE SALESMAN
    Have you thought much about luggage, Mr. Banks?
 
JOE
    No, I never really have.
 
LUGGAGE SALESMAN
    It's the central preoccupation
    of my life.  You travel the
    world, you're away from home,
    perhaps away from your family,
    all you have to depend on is
    yourself and your luggage.

Over the last four years the bag I have been carrying looked more like a briefcase. Two handles, sturdy build, lots of pockets, and a tremendous amount of space called The Empire Builder by Tom Bihn. This bag is indestructible and carries everything I need and more. There are so many great things about this bag, but it is heavy. So I have been looking for an lighter alternative.

A pleasant discovery on Kickstarter, Bobby Anti-Theft backpack by XD Design, came to my attention as watched a different Kickstarter investment I made almost two years ago was fail miserably. Bobby looked very promising.

The look of Bobby was handsome, very professional and considerate of the needs of a traveler. So I ordered one in gray. XD Design was the ideal business partner you want to find on Kickstarter. They communicated frequently, remained transparent about the process, and delivered what they promised on time.

This last week I took Bobby with me to see if he could keep up. Monday I traveled to Boston, Tuesday to Detroit, Wednesday was to Richmond Virginia, Thursday I flew to Atlanta, and Friday I came back home.

Bobby feels light. In my hand by the handle, or strapped on to my back, I often forget that I have a backpack on. This with all the items I carry inside. Designers have made Bobby with the items travelers carry in consideration. There is a pocket for my laptop, padded for safety, and straps to hold it in place. There is a pocket for my iPad with the same design, that also fits my book. Small storage spaces hold my wires, battery, small utility box of plugs and wires, with a pocket at the top for easy access smaller items. Each side includes hidden pockets that hold my passport, keys, wallet, iPod, ear buds, cleaning cloth for eyeglasses, 3oz hand sanitizer, and car park tickets so as not to get lost. And then, in additional all that, there is another deep pocket that is in the padding of the back. This holds all those bits of paper and receipts that one picks up for expenses.

I found that the design of all these pockets and placement allowed for very easy access while I was traveling in cars and in planes. I could not reach them while wearing it, but sliding it off quickly, everything was available and secure. There was no spillage.

 15" MacBook, cord, extra battery, iPad, book "Mr. Memory", Amazon.com utility box, and much, much more... in a lightweight and easy to carry backpack.

15" MacBook, cord, extra battery, iPad, book "Mr. Memory", Amazon.com utility box, and much, much more... in a lightweight and easy to carry backpack.

Bobby opens up fully and flat when you need to pack or unpack. Bobby opens up a little for a hand to reach in and quickly grab what is needed. What a brilliant idea! It works wonderfully.

On the side the rests against your back is a wide strap. This strap and the bag handle are in perfect alignment that when you don’t want to carry the Bobby you can secure it on the bars of your roller/drag bag in complete harmony.

There were several positive comments during my travel on Bobby. In waiting areas and airport lounge people asked, “who makes that?” and “where can I get one?” It would have been a good marketing place for XD Design to include a few business cards to hand out with compliments.

At first I was concerned that Bobby might be too small for the amount of things I carry with me during the week. But everything fits right into place with much less weight.

The one minor point I am keeping my eye on are the zippers, and how long they will last. With the change in humidity, there was a relaxing in the fabric around the zippers near the bottom one day, but it wasn’t much to correct for – just a point to note for consideration.

I highly recommend Bobby Anti-Theft backpack by XD Design It something I can depend on.