A car is parked… a rat is not killed, and talks…Billy gets a letter
I take the gun out and point it at his head, his rat nose between the iron sights. He grins, wide, smoke stained rodent teeth against black gums, and I think there, that’s where I want the bullet to go. The feeling that if I just pull the trigger the entire face will fold in upon itself, flapjack sized varmint ears wrapping around the wide, varmint eyes, and folding, always folding, like a butcher paper origami until there’s nothing left and then it unfolds again into something wonderful like two children holding hands. But I can’t pull the trigger. And then it does fold away, and I haven’t pulled anything, and it keeps warping and twisting with no bullet to punch through and when it’s done there’s no picture, nothing beautiful. Just an old man, chemotherapy ravaged flesh, poisoned smile, all that hate behind his eyes.
“Don’t you want to know,” my father says, “Don’t you want to know why you’re doing this?”
It’s in my hand, I want to say, the reason is here, in the letter crumpled in the hand holding the gun steady. Two words. Kill Victor. It didn’t matter to me whether he was asking or demanding. It was his .45. I’d never fired it before, but at this range, there wasn’t much chance I’d miss.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, finally, tightening my finger on trigger.
“It does if you want to know why,” he says, pushing the words out into the frozen salt air. Behind him the seagulls rise again, screaming like avenging angels. “Dead rats,” he says, “Tell no tales.”
Before I can pull the trigger the car jerks and I’m thrown out of the memory.
“Yes.” I say, trying to orient myself. No ocean. No letter. No gun. No dad.
Sir. We’re here, the car says. You may get out while I park.
“No,” I say, “Go ahead. I’ll wait.”
Pause. Very well, sir.
I shake my head, taking in my surroundings. Home. Or the parking structure under home. The end of another work day, ending as they all do with me watching the car try to wedge itself into my apartment’s labyrinthine parking structure. It’s an old building, and the winding descent of levels seems more grown out than planned, like the digestive tract of a vast and ancient monster.
The car doesn’t like it. Its brain expects and needs sharply defined paths to navigate. Not that it’s stupid. I’ve had conversations with it that have had more weight and meaning than those I typically have with the people I bump into during the day. I’ve spent a lot of time with it, and grown to know it well enough during that time. Like most artificial intelligences, it is quick but narrow. The odd angles and uneven curves of these parking spaces present it with a fundamental problem that it seems unable to learn from. It is not how I would have built it, if it was one of mine. I would like to find who built it. As I sit here, watching the car adjust the wheels for another go at the space, I think that maybe I’d like to have a large stick with me when I meet that person.
There’s no point in blaming the car. It’s possible that I even worked with the person, or people, who built it. The brains are a Microsoft product. The skeleton and muscle are Chinese, naturally.
“Try a little to the left,” I offer, closing my eyes momentarily as the windows fill with keyword advertisements, which seem focused on the word “little,” with predicable results.
Sir, while that seems an excellent suggestion, I’m afraid that any movement to the left would bring me in contact with the vehicle to my left. Of course, if you feel strongly about this, you could assume manual control. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings.
It would, of course, and since I don’t want a sulking car, I keep my mouth shut, close my eyes and feel the car lurch as the poor AI keeps trying to fit the square peg into the round hole. And as so often happens in the absence of outside stimulus, my mind begins to wander over my memories. I reach for the iRemember to drown myself out in a happy, controlled memory, something better than reality, but the battery is dead so I’m on my own.
Why? Through the iron sights of his ancient .45 I couldn’t read my dad’s smile. Was this revenge or was I on the losing end of another of his jokes? It was the only thing keeping me from pulling the trigger. That and my cowardice. Pulling the trigger of a gun is the kind of decision that terrifies me most. Decisions that cannot be undone, explained away, or otherwise brushed under the rug require unambiguous data. And that look on my dad’s face, to me anyway, to the version of me standing on the deck of his beach house all those years ago, was anything but unambiguous.
I shake myself out of the memory and try to enjoy watching my car solve the riddle of my garage. Microsoft has released a software fix for the car that is supposed to improve its parking, but installing it would deprive me of this small pleasure. And I should be enjoying this day. I’ve been promoted to VP of Technology at MKHeavyIndustries and Entertainment, all that was left of the magical kingdom after Microsoft bought it out. Everything will be different for me now. My job will be the same, except more responsibility, and I’ll still be working on the same projects, and I’ll have to work the same hours—or more, naturally. But I’ll have more money to spend on Leslie, who doesn’t really seem to care about that much. Still, though, the weight of working towards this moment, this promotion, is gone. A fifty-pound monkey off my back gone, just like that. Of course, now I have to worry about living up to the expectations on me, but I can do that. I will be different, that’s the main thing. Leslie will appreciate that. She’s got to understand, after all, that I’m doing it for her, for us. This will give us both a future to look forward to. All I’ve ever wanted is to be freed of my past. To look forward to a future. It’s a curse of mine. I remember everything. Everything.
“But the past doesn’t matter now,” I say out loud. Advertisements on my windshield flash to life, advertisers trying to tease out keywords and match them against my education level, financial profile, and buying history. My past again. As the car finally jackknifes itself into my spot, I close my eyes and see my dad’s face again through the iron sights of his army issue .45. That smile.
There’s a “Dear Billy” note on the door. Leslie’s gone but she left the cat, who’s looking up and me and squalling, looking alone and confused, abandoned like I am. I do the only thing I can think to do, what I wish someone would do for me. I turn it off, and the bewildered and lonely cat eyes are just plastic again.
I sit down hard next to the suddenly inert lump of plastic and silicon, clutching Leslie’s note. Around me the air is being conditioned, sucked out through the vents, filtered, and blown back into the room. Soon all that is left of her here will be my memories and a collection of dead skin cells, hair and dander trapped in the vent’s filters. And her crap. That’s all still here. Usually they take their crap with them when they go. Discarded clothes, toiletries, sex tools, still exactly where she left them. I’d rushed home early to tell her I’d finally made VP. After years of scratching and clawing my way up, Dr. Lazarus had put me in charge of software and hardware integration. Everything I wanted, but in practical terms, in immediate practical terms, the main thing I’d gained was coming home in time to faintly smell her before the air conditioning removed her perfume from the air.
The note is on the back of a drawing I made twenty years ago. Something I made when I was very, very young. That she chose that drawing is probably not a coincidence. The picture is of three stick men with spears chasing a stick figure Victor Varmint. I like to draw, or did when I was a kid, but stick men is about as far as I ever got artistically. The picture lives, or did before Leslie decided to tape it to the door, in an old, torn-up notebook from grade school that I’ve been hauling around with me ever since. It has survived college, grad school, and my gradual rise through larger debt-generating apartments. I leave the notebook buried among my programming books, which usually keeps it safe from the women who drift in and out, always out, of my life. Not this time.
A message for the occupants of Planet Billy.
That’s how the note starts, and that gets me back and up on my feet, headed towards the refrigerator and a beer. The refrigerator informs me of the status of its few remaining occupants. After a year of owning the hideously expensive tower of stainless steel, Leslie and I had pretty much given up on the thing, and used it only to store beer. It developed the radish compulsion early, and I’d sort of egged it on, occasionally sneaking a bag of radishes in late at night when Leslie was sleeping, then resetting the refrigerator’s computer and removing the radishes. The practical upshot was that Leslie grew tired of it harassing her about phantom radishes, and we got to eat takeout every night. There is beer, though. I take one, then decide that I want as little interaction with the refrigerator as possible, and fill my arms with the remaining seven.
The radishes are running alarming low, says the refrigerator.
“Noted.” It takes me three beers before I’m ready to look at the rest of the letter.
I remember a long time ago when we were younger. Maybe it only seems like a long time ago. Maybe on your planet time is measured differently. Who cares at this point? The cat is giving me a persecuted look and knows somehow that he isn’t coming with me, so I have to keep this short. But in any case I remember that I once thought of you as a mystery to be solved. Then, eventually, the wall around your heart as a challenge, a fortification to be scaled, and that there would be something wonderful, a treasure of unimaginable beauty, inside. But after years of fighting through your defenses, I’m convinced that there’s nothing there. That the distant look in your eyes isn’t a mystery, it’s that you simply aren’t there. You’re on Planet Billy. A place I can never visit.I’m afraid, too. I’m afraid that whatever you have is catching, that my heart will become slick with whatever goo fills yours. So this is it. Good-bye. I no longer want to solve your mystery. If you want a simple reason I’m leaving, take this and hold onto it.It’s that I can no longer abide your karmic goo.
And that’s it. The Victor Varmint in the picture is my father. When I was young, he used to play a game with me. He’d leave notes for me under my Victor Varmint digital alarm clock. The notes were always signed Victor and told me to do things. They were puzzles, in their own ways, but the solution to the puzzle was always to trick my sister. If I did well, Victor would leave me a gift the next day. If I failed, he’d tell me Dad was going to punish me. It took me a long time to put it together. To figure out that my father was Victor. I did try to kill him, years ago, but not with a spear. Almost ten years ago to the day, when I was twenty-five.
I write memories now, or the software to play them, anyway. Ten years after pointing a pistol at my father’s face and failing to pull the trigger, I’m the technical lead for Microsoft’s rented memory division. In my other hand, the one not holding the picture, I’m holding our product, the iRemember. A two-pound lump of plastic and electronics that can drop you into your past brainstem first. I correct myself. I was the technical lead. Now I’m running the entire technical team. All two hundred of them. It doesn’t seem real. VP. Work. It’s something to cling to, now that she’s gone.The furniture, sensing my mood, shifts to a darker shade of blue as I wave at the wall screen, trying to bring up the work terminal. When it finally gets around to recognizing what I’m asking, a cascade of alerts and project status graphs cascade down the wall, finally dissolving into an empty terminal screen.
“Hello, Victor,” I say.
Hello, Billy appears on the terminal. I’d turned off the speech software months ago. The voice, no matter how much I tweaked it, always ended up sounding like Dad.
Or should I call you Vice President of Integrated Memory Systems?
“Thanks to you,” I say.
You made me.
The words hang there on the screen for a few minutes.“Let’s get to work,” I say, finally. “What’s the first order of business following an acquisition of power?”
Terminate potential rivals. I’ve already identified the ten people most likely to challenge your authority over the course of the next year.
I look down at my hands. I’m still holding the note clenched in my fist. I unfold it. Look at Victor. What would Dad have done? What did he teach me to do?
“Fire them. Notify Homeland Corporate Security that they are unemployed and eligible for assignment to work camps.”
Done. Congratulations, Dad.
I sit back on my sofa, work on my beer while the cursor blinks. Victor waiting for me to do work while I turn over the iRemember in my hands. “Have you fixed bug 344?”
I push the power button on the iRemember. “Open test file 777. I want to see it again.”
If you remember, sir, Bug 665 is still open. Test subjects have shown signs of memory addiction. It’s why you’ve forbidden the staff from testing the unit on themselves. It’s why God made testers, I believe you said, on sixteen separate occasions.
I look around my empty apartment. My powered-off cat. The psychotic refrigerator. The karmic goo that I can’t see but somehow feel now, still holding her letter in my hand. “Just get me out of here.”
My mind is filled with a single line:C:\Billy Glover\My Brain\Memories\Adulthood\Sexual\Synthetic\Blow_Job_on_a_ Beach
Then the apartment and the last fragments of her smell dissolve into a happy memory of something that never happened to me.