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 !  Percentages

Science Fiction Short Story

by

John H. Leeper


 

         Tran Larsen stretched his arm through the web of plastic pipes and opened the small blue valve. The reaction was instantaneous. The white pyro-plast union beside his face vibrated loudly. Then, a fine mist of hot water jetted through a tiny crack in the plastaweld. It stung his right cheek and the skin beneath his thin undershirt.

          Larsen cursed loudly and frantically wrenched the valve handle clockwise. The crack in the union only widened; but fortunately, the path of the hissing stream was largely upwards. By the time the hot water dripped from the metal ceiling of the cramped vertical crawlspace and fell onto his body, it had cooled sufficiently that he was not badly scalded. He directed a score of invectives at the obscure idiot who first designed a blue hot water valve that a plumber had to close by twisting its next-to-impossible-to-grip handle in a counterclockwise direction.

          "Robot!" Larsen squalled. The sound of his voice echoed violently in the tiny enclosure. He twisted to one side in order to look down the narrow, chimney-like crawlspace. As he did, he felt this legs tremble with frustration and exhaustion. He had forgotten just how long he had been forced to keep both feet pressed against the opposite wall in order to wedge his back into the tiny nook some genius of an architect described as a "Technician's Observation Seat" on the plumbing blueprints.

          "Robot!" he shouted again. "Where the hell are you, you little tin bastard?"

          Almost immediately he heard, Whirrr . . . click! A dome shaped, exquisitely polished, brass head appeared through the three-foot square access door beneath him. Its voice was distinctly female and, at the same time, distinctly inhuman. "How can I help you, sir?"

          "I thought I told you to turn off the hot water heater," Larsen snarled angrily.

          Whirrr . . . click! "I am afraid that is impossible, sir," the mechanical voice replied in its grossly condescending manner. "The estate greenhouse requires a constant temperature of 29 to 31 degrees centigrade to provide a suitable atmosphere for the varied species of tropical plants housed there. Hot water is necessary not only to maintain temperature but also the high levels of humidity . . .

          Larsen yanked the soggy cigar from his lips so he could scream in full voice. "You idiot! I have the valve cut off! There is no hot water going into the greenhouse!"

          There was a short pause as the robot's logitronic circuits absorbed and correlated this new information. Whirrr . . . click! "I really must insist that you turn the hot water on, sir. Many of these plants are rare and require that the environment be kept at . . ."

          "Listen to me you digital twit!" The force of his scream shook his body so violently that it nearly cost him his precarious foothold on the far wall. He fought to regain mental and physical composure. "Listen to me robot," he began again in a voice as calm as circumstances permitted. "I am the plumber. Your owner called me this morning to come and fix the pipes going into the greenhouse. That is why the hot water line is shut off."

          Another pause. Whirrr . . . click! "What seems to be the problem, sir?"

          Larsen snapped indignantly, "The problem is that pyro-plast unions aren't worth a shit! Okay? Now will you go shut off the hot water heater?"

          Whirrr . . . click! "I am afraid you have been misinformed," the condescending female voice replied. "I am well-versed in the building materials used to construct this house. Self-locking pyro-plast unions are 24 percent less labor intensive to install and 38 percent more durable than comparable conventional plumbing hardware on today's market."

          Larsen closed his eyes and voiced a lament to God. "Why didn't I just buy my way into the plumber's guild like my ex-wife said? Then, I could have put in my five hours a day and gone home to watch holovision like everybody else in the world." He knew there was no point in continuing a conversation with the housekeeper robot; but he couldn't restrain himself. Some rebellious, socially disaffected instinct buried under layers of liquid plastic and plumber's caulk burned with righteous indignation against the artless, unimaginative, feeble craftsmanship, which coupled with innovative ad campaigns, seemed a guarantee of financial success. He stared down between his legs at the shining brass dome of the robot and grinned maliciously. "Whoever programmed you with those percentages doesn't know any more about pyro-plast unions than he does about the hair on a rat's ass!"

          Whirrr . . . click!

          "I'll grant you these little whiz-bangs go together fast enough. But if you don't twist them just right or they get a little too hot or there's a little too much pressure in the line, they'll pop just like your head will if you don't turn off that damned hot water heater!"

          Whirrr . . . click! The dome-shaped head of the housekeeper robot darted out of the crawlspace to the safety of the hallway.

          Larsen returned the limp cigar to the corner of his mouth and let the back of his head thump loudly against the metal wall behind him. He stared helplessly, hopelessly into the pale light of his pocket lantern, which was magnetically suspended in the air near the ceiling, and reflected upon the futility of life. His legs ached. His back ached. His butt ached from trying to grip the narrow ledge where, allegedly, he could sit comfortably and monitor or repair the elaborate network of pipes and guages that maintained the delicate environment of the greenhouse.

          The cramped crawlspace was oppressively hot and at this moment, it was the last place in the solar system he wanted to be. All day long words had been tumbling through his head. They were great words. Just the kinds of words a real detective hero from the late 20th century would have said . . . or should have said. And all day long, while he was up to his elbows in joint compound and human fecal matter, he had been aching to get back to his flat on the West Side. There he could sit behind his plywood desk and painfully tap those great words onto paper using his antique Smith-Corona typewriter, transporting himself into that grand golden age of man.

          Larsen closed his eyes and for just a moment the steamy crawlspace was transformed in his imagination to a smoke-filled bar on the West Side of Los Angeles. They were all there: the businessman in his dark, three-piece suit and silver-tipped cowboy boots, the punk rocker with her dyed hair and empty martini glass, the cheerleader with her silver and red pom-poms. They were all there, just like they would have been in the 1990s, when life was still simple and chaste, untarnished by the vapid, high-tech drams of holovision or the slip-shod, make-a-dollar-at-any-cost brand of creativity that gave rise to such inventions as pyro-plast unions.

          Whirrr . . . click! The sound drub him back to bitter reality.

          "Robot?" Larsen growled between clinched teeth. "Did you turn off the hot water heater?" No response. He reached through the pipes and gave the valve a small twist. Hot water dribbled from the crack in the pyro-plast union. "Damn. You've got to do everything yourself." He closed the valve and made the precarious descent to the floor of the crawlspace. As he clambered head-first through the access door into the brightly-lit hallway, he heaped coals of fire upon the polished brass head of the housekeeper robot. But his tirade was cut short by the sight of a massive, three-pronged, metal foot inches from his face. His eyes moved interminable upwards tracing the brutal outline of another robot: this one fitted at the joints with titanium alloy blast plates and painted a uniform blue. When he finally reached the massive right-arm, his cigar fell to the tile floor with a soggy flop and he felt a great convolution of the bowels. The barrel tip of a rather large caliber gun was protruding from the end of the arm, and it was aimed squarely at a point between his eyes.

          Larsen felt his body go numb and whatever rationality he had possessed tow seconds earlier fled for the relative safety of the crawlspace, leaving him in the hall on his hands and knees sputtering idiotically, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I'm the plumber for god's sake."

          Whirrr . . . click! A voice that exuded cold-blooded inhumanity buzzed from the robot's voice box. "Stand up sir." Larsen spring to his feet instantly and found himself face-to-face with a seven-foot-tall machine that, prior to this moment, he had only seen on holovision: an armed police riot robot. It stood on ostrich-like legs that, allegedly, could propel its enormous bulk at speeds in excess of 50 kilometers per hour. The weapons cylinder on its right arm was a snap-on unit housing a high-speed gun. At the apex of the left arm was a four-fingered mechanical hand. The logitronic brain was encased in a molded blast helmet so its videotronic eyes had to be set further down the body of the robot. The trio of red lights stared at him through slits in the wedge-shaped chest protector.

          Larsen recoiled as he recalled a holovision thriller where one of these things went haywire and wiped out the population of a suburban town before being destroyed. Yet, even in his terror, something deep within his psyche whistled in admiration. It seemed that man's creativity never lacked when it came to manufacturing engines for human destruction. It was just too bad the genius who created this riot robot hadn't designed the pyro-plast union.

          The robot's left hand shot out suddenly, stopping only inches from his face. A pink square of paper dangled from the tips of two jointed metal fingers. "Is this yours?" the monotone voice asked. Larsen focused on the words of the pre-printed note.

          We would like to thank you for the submission of your manuscript to our publishing company. However, after careful review, we find that it does not meet our current editorial needs. In the future, we would suggest that you review the weekly newspaper column, Hot Numbers at Walton's Bookstores, as this superb writer's aid will help you to better understand the needs of our publishing firm. Thank you. We are returning your manuscript under separate cover. Allow four to six weeks for delivery.

          Larsen groaned. The rejection slip was identical in every detail to the others he had at home; but this one cut to the bone. It was from Trans-Atlantic Publishing Group. He had submitted a copy of his 1990s detective novel to the company six weeks earlier. Trans-Atlantic had been his last hope.

          Whirrr . . . click! "Then you admit your are Tran B. Larsen of 3101 Powell Road, Apartment 10, serial number 1101742-B?" the machine asked.

          "Well, yeah . . . sure. But what's the problem? I haven't done . . ."

          The riot robot took a short step back and raised its gun cylinder level with his face. "You are under arrest for suspicion of anarchist activities," it hummed simply.

          Larsen looks at the machine incredulously. "Under arrest? Anarchist? What the hell are you talking about?"

          Whirrr . . . click! "Surrender your weapons and come along peacefully."

          "Larsen's voice grew shrill with fear. "Weapons? I'm a plumber for god's sake! I don't have any weapons."

          There was an ominous clicking from deep within the weapon's cylinder. The riot robot obviously begged to differ. Whirrr . . . click! "There is a 98.7 percent probability that you are lying! Anarchists always pack artillery. Now, drop it . . . creep!"

          Wide-eyed with terror, Larsen waved a hand in feeble protest. "Hey! Hey, buddy . . . hold it!" he stammered. "All I've got are wrenches."

          Perhaps he snatched the pipe wrench from its belt loop too quickly. Or perhaps there was merely a glitch in the robot's circuitry. Afterwards, he was never really sure. All that he knew was the massive weapons cylinder jerked suddenly to the left and there was a deafening report as it fired a single, computer-guided bullet. The pipe wrench was ripped from his hand by an invisible force so powerful that it left his right arm tingling with pain. He twisted to one side and gripped his stunned forearm. The riot robot lunged at him and its metal hand delivered a perfectly placed blow to the base of his skull just behind the left ear.

          There were a few seconds of semi-consciousness as the floor rushed up to greet his face. Then as darkness closed about him, he watched the pink rejection slip float to the tile beside him like an autumn leaf carried by an indifferent wind.

* * * * *

          Tran Larsen awoke with a headache worthy of a cheap wine hangover. Fearing that his eyeballs might be pushed from their sockets, he refused at first to open his eyes and was forced to rely upon his other scrambled senses to collect as much relevant data as possible.

          He was lying on something hard. He knew that much because the entire left side of his face hurt. But strong odors of human urine and disinfectant told him it was not the tile floor outside the plumbing crawlspace. And there were people milling about. He heard snatches of conversations, curses, the ringing of telephones and the occasional whirring, clicking, clumping, buzzing noises robots made. Larsen gathered his courage and opened his eyes.

          Colorless masses pitched violently around him until he felt like a skiff adrift in a typhoon. But slowly they acquired definable shapes. He recognized the sharp, vertical lines of metal bars a few inches from his face and, beyond those bars, a pair of human legs. A woman's legs. Long, phenomenal legs poured into sheer nylons. he traced their perfect curves slowly upwards and discovered a short skirt, revealing low-cut blouse and a stunningly beautiful face. The woman was seated on a battered wooden bench a few feet beyond the bars. Her short, black hair was swept back over her ears. She had high cheekbones, sultry brown eyes, full lips and an impish nose.

          It was strange, but he thought that he knew her. He groped through the cobwebs inside his head for a revelation. When it hit him, he came bolt upright on one elbow. "Lara Prim!" he blurted, then groaned in pain and reached for the back of his head fully expecting to find a gaping hole. But his skull was intact. There was a bandage over the spot where the riot robot struck him.

          The woman cocked her head in his direction and eyed him curiously. He knew he must be wrong. The odds against this woman being Lara Prim had to be incredible. She was one of the most touted new stars of the current holovision season and, obviously, she didn't blong here. He recognized this as a police station. He was in a small holding cell. Larsen stated the obvious and felt stupid the moment he opened his mouth. "Say, you look just like Lara Prim, the actress."

          The woman smiled alluringly. "That's because I am Lara Prim," she replied in a husky voice.

          Larsen's jaw dropped. "No kidding? What are you doing here?" he asked incredulously.

          She leaned forward resting her chin on the back of a perfectly-shaped hand. Her lips pouted the words, "The studio gets so boring sometimes. I like to come downtown for a little fun."

          Larsen glanced around his tiny cell and the dingy hallway where she was sitting. He looked at her doubtfully and muttered, "You couldn't find anything to beat this?"

          "Mmmm . . ." the actress moaned and ran her hand seductively along the curves of her smooth thigh. "Would you like to have a little fun with me?"

          Larsen stared in stunned silence. Then he reached forward and tapped one of the metal bars. "Yes I would, but I'm a little tied up right now." Then he asked hopefully. "How about a rain check?"

          Lara Prim stared at him blankly and then repeated. "That's because I am Lara Prim. The studio gets so boring sometimes. I like to come downtown for a little fun. Mmmm . . . would you like to have a little fun with me?" Whirrr . . . click!

          Larsen's exclaimed in disbelief. "Christ! You're a robot."

          At that moment a blue-coated police office strolled by and stopped in front of the Lara Prim look-alike. He shouted angrily, "Hey, Vinny. Get your ass over here and shut this damn thing off!"

          From a large room at one end of the hall a nasal voice whined, "All right, all right. I'm coming." Momentarily, a round man with a balding pate and then mustache appeared. He wore garrish clothing and his flabby face had that peculiar scowl of righteous indignation common to men who felt themselves much maligned by circumstance. The man began gesturing wildly with his hands as he approached the officer. "Fill out these forms. Find your operator's license. Come turn off this android. Why can't you people go catch real criminals instead of harrassing honest businessmen?"

          The officer grinned sardonically, "You are a real criminal, Vinny. It's against the law to build androids that look like holovision stars. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if Lara Prim's attorney wasn't heading this way right now with a million credit lawsuit in his pocket." The little fat man groaned audibly as though he had been struck in the stomach. He produced a tool akin to a thin screwdriver and sat beside the imitation human being, which had begun its recitation for the third time. The tool vanished into the make-believe human's right ear and the husky voice was cut off in mid-sentence.

          "There. Satisfied?" the little man snapped.

          The police officer did not reply, for at that instant, he noticed Larsen leaning on an elbow surveying the curious scene. His face clouded and he hurried towards the adjacent operations room.

          Vinny carefully leaned the machine against the back of the bench seat, treating it with more tenderness than he probably would have a real woman. Larsen cleared his throat and it attracted the fellow's attention. Larsen said, "I've seen look-alike androids before, but nothing like . . . that. She's just like the real thing."

          At first, Vinny's face bore a scowl of disdain and suspicion, but gradually, those features changed into hopeful expectation. "My friend, this little lady is better than the real thing. She is state-of-the-art somaplast technology. Looks, moves, talks and feels like Lara Prim . . . should." He gave the lifeless android's left breast a gentle squeeze. "Why there's even a micro-heating system to maintain an even 98.6 surface temperature . . . unless you get here a little excited." He gave Larsen a vulgar wink. "Know what I mean?"

          Larsen nodded. He understood completely. Vinny was a high-tech pimp, offering nights of boundless fantasy to the highest bidder.

          Vinny leaned forward. "What are you in for?"

          Larsen winced as he sat upright. He moved his head slowly from side to side to make sure it was intact. "I don't know. They've made a mistake of some kind."

          Vinny again flashed a vulgar grin. "Me to." Then, he looked furtively down the hallway to make sure no officer was watching them. "Really, what business are you in?"

          "I'm a . . ." Larsen started to say the word plumber but the proximity of the Lara Prim look-alike caused him to reconsider. ". . . writer."

          Vinny examined his stained work clothes dubiously. "Yeah? Do you know Harold Alstein?" Larsen shook his head. "Client of mine. He writes holovision scripts for the Buck Laser Show."

          Larsen had watched the program only once. Even for holovision, it was revolting. He had wondered at the time how any writer could possibly produce something so utterly vacuous without malicious intent.

          Vinny reached into his coat pocket and flashed a business card. "Give me a call if you'd like to see your fantasies come true." He winked knowingly.

          "I don't write for holovision," Larsen said as he reached through the bars and accepted the card. "I write detective novels."

          The pimp's face wrinkled in confusion. "What's the percentage in that kind of stuff? Holovision is what the public wants. That's where the money is."

          Larsen might have argued the point another day. But, instead, he changed the subject by thrusting his chin towards the android. "Just out of curiousity, how much would a night on the town with Lara set me back?"

          "A mere 900 credits."

          "Nine hundred credits?" Larsen whistled in amazement. For the second time in his life -- the first being the day of his divorce -- he realized there was no justice in the solar system. "Do you mean to tell me a clown like Harold makes that kind of money for writing tripe?"

          Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of another uniformed policeman. he was a middle-aged man with sergeant stripes decorating his sleeves. He stopped between them, eyed Vinny and Larsen reflectively, then leaned forward until his face was within inches of the pimp's. "I hope you aren't practicing business on this guy, Vinny. That wouldn't be very bright. You know what he's in for?"

          Vinny shook his head apprehensively.

          "He's an anarchist. You know, the kind of guy who blows up public buildings and guns down crowds of innocent bystanders. In fact, Vinny, this one is so crazy he attacked a riot robot with a pipe wrench. Get the picture?"

          He did. The pimp stared at Larsen in horror.

          There was a loud clump, clump, clumping. The small corridor was filled with the enormous bulk of two armed riot robots, their gun pods leveled at Larsen. The magnetic seal of the door was unlocked and the police office motioned him into the hall.

          As Larsen walked past the bench, Vinny tugged at his pant's legs. The man's flabby cheeks trembled nervously. "Hey, listen, you or your friends ever get downtown, the fun is on me. No charge! Okay?"

          Larsen could only shrug indifferently as he was ushered down the hall towards an interrogation room.

* * * * *

          The police detective stood in the darkness beyond the perimeter of the beam of intense white light surrounding Tran Larsen's chair. His voice rumbled, "Maximum light!" The spherical hololamp floating lazily in mid-air buzzed like an angry hornet as it cycled into full illumination. Larsen squinted and averted his eyes. The light was causing his headache to worsen.

          The detective's voice snarled out of the blackness. "Now, smart guy, shall we take it from the top? Who are you?"

          Larsen shook his head in despair. "For the ninth time, I'm Tran Larsen. Serial number 1101742-B. Now, will you tell me what this is all about? Somebody's made a big mistake here."

          "Yeah, Tennian . . . you have."

          Tennian? Larsen knew that name. He exclaimed in surprise, "Tennian? That's a character in my novel."

          The hololamp buzzed again. This time it was not a familiar noise. There was an angry crackle . . . a pop! The room fell into total blackness.

          "What the hell?" the detective growled.

          Larsen felt a tug from the magnetic shackles encircling his forearms. The security switch had been activated. There was a loud clack as the shackles adhered to the nearest metal objects, the heavy armrests of the interrogation chair. A crowbar couldn't have separated them.

          Larsen heard the detective groping blindly in the dark for the hololamp. The man's head found the object first and the cursed loudly. "Who the hell invented this goddamn thing?" he asked rhetorically.

          Larsen replied, "Probably the same guy who came up with pyro-plast unions."

          The security door opened and the small interrogation room was suddenly awash in neon light. A dull looking man in his late twenties wearing street clothes and a silly grin stood in the doorway. "Hey, sarge, why don't you turn on the lights? It's dark in here."

          The older detective was rubbing a small bump on his forehead. "Why don't you just shut up?" he spat.

          "Okay, okay! Jeeze, don't go snapping my head off. I ain't done nothing." The indignant younger detective strode across the room to a table that supported a portable computer console. Larsen was surprised to discover that he carried the bound original of his 1990s detective novel tucked under one arm. As the man sat on the edge of the table, he opened the manuscript to a dog-eared page and began to read.

          The chief interrogator turned towards Larsen angrily. "So you say you're Tran B. Larsen, a plumber, eh? Tell me, smart guy, what's your local?"

          "I don't belong to the plumber's guild."

          "No kidding," the interrogator answered sarcastically. "Well, can you give me the name of your tech school?"

          "I didn't go to tech school. I learned plumbing from a book and . . ."

          "Ah-hah!" the policeman blurted in triumph. A look of wicked glee crossed his face as he pointed to the computer console on the table. "Computer?"

          "On line," a metallic voice replied.

          "Assess probabilities."

          There was a soft whirring noise as the computer accessed a central library and requested information. Seconds later the metallic voice droned dispassionately, "There is a 98.7 percent probability the suspect is lying. Walton Bookstores discontinued its line of self-help, home maintenance books 67 years ago as a result of low market share and boycott threats from trade guilds."

          "From a book, eh?" the interrogator sneered.

          "It was an old book," Larsen sputtered. "I found it in a guy's attic. It was called Zen, Haiku and the Art of Transcendental Plumbing."

          More whirring as the computer accessed new files. It responded almost immediately. "Such a title was published in the mid-21st century. Author, Hamada Karimatsu. Text no longer in city central storage. Relevance to modern plumbing techniques . . . questionable."

          "It taught you how to think like a plumber, that's all. I picked the rest up by practice."

          The computer's logitronic circuits continued absorbting and regurgitating random facts it estimated to be pertinent. "Author Hamada Karimatsu is better known for two later works: The History of Violent Revolution in Modern Political Systems and Fundamental Principles of Neo-Anarchism. Author died in 2087 of self-inflicted sword wounds. Best remembered historically as the greatest mass murderer in Japanese history. Before comitting suicide he released a virulent strain of bacterial plague into the

          Tokyo water supply resulting in the deaths of over a million citizens. His historic titles include Father of Modern Anarchism, Grave Digger of Japan, Scourge of Tokyo, the . . ."

          Larsen's voice climbed to falsetto. "Hey, I didn't know anything about that!"

          "Sure you didn't, Tennian." The interrogator's face was beaming in triumph. "And I suppose you don't know anything about this either?" He pointed dramatically towards his partner who, as though on cue, chuckled loudly over a passage in Larsen's novel. The older detective whirled about, his face livid. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Haroldsen?"

          The younger man looked up in confusion. "Reading the guy's book."

          The older detective stormed across the room and yanked the manuscript from Haroldsen's hands.

          "Hey," the fellow protested. "I wasn't hurting nothing. Come on, lemme finish that chapter, I just had a coupla more pages."

          The interrogator shook his head in disgust. "Have you ever heard the word evidence?" He turned again towards Larsen, thumped the cover of the novel and rumbled, "I asked if you knew anything about this?"

          "Sure I know about it. It's my novel. I've been working on it for the last two years."

          "Yeah? And have you taken a little time out between pages to make some plastic explosives, Tennian?"

          "Explosives? What are you talking about, and why do you keep calling me Tennian?"

          The computer accessed a new filed and replied automatically, "Tennian. Code name for arch-terrorist suspected int he bombing of the New York Space Port, November 11, 2354; the bombing of the Los Angeles city central computer building on August 3, 2355; the bombing of the Dallas Plice Guild Hall on . . ."

          Larsen squealed, "Who, me? Are you crazy? I don't know anything about bombs."

          The interrogator's face twisted into a predatory snarl. He reached into his pocket, produced a small, white tube and dropped it in Larsen's lap. "Oh, really? And what do you call this?"

          "It's plastaweld. What about it?"

          "What's five cases of the stuff doing in your apartment?"

          "I use it to repair sewer pipes. I'm a plumber you know."

          "And this?" A can of lighter fluid appeared from another pocket and was shaken in Larsen's face.

          "I use it to light cigars, for crying out loud."

          "And the old mercury thermometer in your closet?"

          "What thermom . . . oh, that. It's an antique. I collect a lot of stuff from the 20th century."

          The chief detective glowered at him. "Got an answer for everything don't you, smart guy. I suppose that old typewriter in your apartment is just another . . . antique?"

          "Yeah, I used it to write my book. That's how the old mystery writers did it. Now, is there a point to all of this?"

          The computer console provided the answer. "Antique typewriters are a favorite tool of anarchists as the characters they produce lack micro-identification codes. Plastaweld, lighter fluid and mercury are three key ingredients for low-grade explosive compounds."

          Larsen's jaw dropped in amazement. "No kidding?"

          "I suppose you didn't know any of that, either?" the interrogator sneered.

          "No, I didn't."

          "Give it a break, clown. Any twelve-year-old who watches the Buck Laser Show would know that."

          "So, I can't be the guy you want. Only somebody with a twelve-year-old's mind could watch that stupid program."

          The younger detective seated on the console table piped, "Hey, sarge, ain't that your favorite holovision show?" Larsen groaned inwardly.

          The interrogator's face not only acquired a more intense shade of red, it actually appeared to swell in size like the head of an enraged cobra. Larsen recoiled at the man's warlike advance. He fully expected to be physically beaten while he sat helpless in the chair. But the assault was verbal. "You intellectual jerk-offs are all the same! You figure the solar system is in such bad shape the only thing to do is go back a couple of centuries and start all over again." The heavy manuscript was slammed irreverently onto the floor at Larsen's feet. "That's what this crap is all about itsn't it?" He pointed an accusing finger in Larsen's face. "Let's all hop back into the 20th century and grow our food from the good earth instead of making it in factories. And let's stop exploiting the planets for their resources. And let's shut down all the fusion reactors; and . . ."

          "Hey, sarge," the younger detective suddenly interjected, shaking his head, "his book ain't nothing like that. It's about this detective whose partner gets killed and . . ."

          Like a man whose religious beliefs had come under attack, the older detective lashed out angrily, "What the hell to you know Haroldsen? You shouldn't even be reading this crap. That's what computer scanners are for."

          Larsen chimed, "But he's right! It's just a story about a detective who solves a murder."

          "Oh, really," the detective sneered. "Computer, assess probabilites along this line of reasoning."

          The console whirred again in the usual fashion then replied, "This manuscript was scanned by all six computerized readers of the major Terran publishing firms. Only minor revisions were noted. The scanners concluded that the subject matter does not coincide with any of the accepted topical norms of Walton Bookstores. It contains only six percent of the recommended phrases, is 12 percent longer than the acceptable standard and fails to establish the plot within the first 0.7 percent of total manuscript pages, as is required. Since this data is readily available to any professional or amateur writer in the daily newspaper column, Hot Numbers at Walton's Bookstores, there is a 91.4 percent probability the suspect is lying."

          The computer's reply struck Larsen like a slap across the face. "Hold it computer. Did you say scanners? Do you mean to tell me not a single human being actually read my manuscript at those publishing companies . . . just machines?"

          The computer droned mechanically, "Scanners are 99.3 percent more efficient for the sorting and evaluation of bulk written material than human copy readers. Computerized readers can be programmed with up-to-date records of all book sales receipts, marketing surveys and focus-group studies reflecting consumer purchasing patterns."

          The interrogator growled and leaned over until his face was within inches of Larsen's. "You say you're the big writer and you don't even know that. Come on, clown."

          Larsen tried to open his mouth and form a response, but the words hung in his throat. This particular revelation stung him worse than the pink rejection slip from Trans Atlantic Publishing.

          "Computer," the interrogator snapped. "What does this manuscript really mean?"

          The mechanical voice answered, "I have transposed all proper nouns and dates to the present and have established the existence of two probable codes. The first targets senior political figures in the Mars settlements for assassination. The second provides schedules and rendezvous points for secret meetings of anarchist covens throughout the solar system. There is a 61.3 percent probability that the book was intended for publication as a means of transmitting one, or both, of these secret signals. Anarchist members would merely have to be imbedded with subliminal messages triggered by key phrases in the text."

          Larsen sat open mouthed. The computer's absurd theory reminded him of a night class he had once taken in 20th century literature. He had come close to failing the class when he questioned the professor's contention that a "subliminal message of pending social disaster" was woven into some verbose and incredibly sappy romance novel. Larsen's natural sarcasm suddenly surfaced as he thought of the ridiculous pronouncement. "Say, computer, there is something about your theory I haven't got clear. I take it most all books are sold through the Walton Bookstore chain, right?"

          "A total of 97.8 percent of all new titles," it answered.

          "So, the six Terran publishers will only print the books that the people who own Walton's say they should print, right?"

          "Essentially correct, sir."

          "And that is why the publishers who rejected my novel kept sending me those slips that told me to read the column, Hot Numbers at Walton's Bookstores, right?"

          "Correct."

          "So if a book doesn't fit the specs, it can't get printed anyway. And if it can't get printed, then the secret message inside it can't get into the hands of all these anarchists around the solar system. So, what are the odds that a fellow like this Tennian guy would be smart enough to dream up an elaborate secret code and put it in a novel, but so stupid that he wouldn't read the newspaper column and make it fit the Walton rules."

          There was another whirring noise from the console followed by a long, pronounced silence. The younger detective reached over and tapped the console to be sure it was working. The machine buzzed erratically but did not answer.

          Larsen clucked his tongue in disapproval. "How do you like that? A paranoid computer. Well, you know what they say about pets and logitronic units. After a while, one of them starts to look like its master and the other starts to think like him."

          Suddenly, a high-pitched alarm sounded from some hidden speaker in the ceiling. A nasal voice ordered, "Attention, all duty personnel. Disturbance in detention block five. Report to the desk officer immediately."

          Both officers swore simultaneously. The interrogator strode to the door and issued some unintelligible order in the hallway. Seconds later, Larsen heard the clumping, whirring, clicking noise of an approaching riot robot. The interrogator once more shook a finger in Larsen's face. "You and I aren't finished yet, not by a long shot." As he turned away, he banged the riot robot on its metal chestplate and ordered, "You watch that chair!"

          As soon as the senior officer left the room, the younger detective came over to Larsen and picked up the detective novel from the floor. He whispered, "You mind if I read the rest of this?"

          Larsen shrugged.

          "Look, if the sarge asks where this is, tell him a clerk came by and picked it up, okay?

          Had Larsen's arms been free, he might have wrapped them around the young cop's neck and kissed him. It was very like the detective was the first human being who had actually taken the time to read his novel; and, on the surface at least, he seemed to like it. But Larsen let the man leave with only a nonchalant nod. Then, he was left alone with the massive riot robot. It stood to his right like a statue to a malevolent god. Its firing pod was leveled at his chest. Only the low hum of the internal generator told him it was still active.

          Long moments of silence devoured even the small sop of joy that the young detective had given him. He sank further and further into depression. No one had even read his manuscript. Two years of devotion, tears , frustration, elation, labor and illusions erased in a single afternoon. He felt hollow and cheated. Larsen sighed deeply and spoke to the robot for no other reason that it was nearby. "What a jerk I am, eh nickel breath? I mean you're what life is really all about, aren't you? If I'd just spent my time building something like you instead of writing that stupid book, I'd be sitting up in the big house right now fondling the real Lara Prim, right?" The riot robot stood mute, secure in its relevance.

          At that moment, Larsen spotted a small plastic package partially concealed by the computer console. In the confusion of the last hour he hadn't noticed it. Through the transparent liner he could see some of his personal belongings, including a package of cigars. He was suddenly overcome by an intense craving for nicotine. "Say, robot?" he asked hopefully. "Would you mind going over to that console desk and getting my cigars out of the sack?"

          There was a soft buzzing sound and, to his astonishment, his wrist and leg shackles were suddenly free of the metal chair. Whirrr . . . click! The robot's inhuman voice ordered, "Get them yourself, sir."

          At first, he was afraid to move and eyed the machine suspiciously. But his nicotine craving gradually drew him from the chair, although he kept his eyes fixed on the robot's gun pod. The metal monster didn't budge. He retrieved his lighter and a cigar from the plastic pouch and struck a flame. The riot robot's voice again startled him by warning, "Smoking is not permitted in his room, sir!"

          "Well, where can I smoke, then?"

          There was a soft thump and the exit door behind the massive engine came ajar. Whirrr . . . click! "In the hallway, sir."

          The hairs on the back of Larsen's neck bristled. This had to be a trap of some kind. "So you are saying I can go into the hall to smoke."

          Whirrr . . . click! "The hallway is a designated smoking area. You are not permitted to smoke in here."

          Larsen desperately wanted out of this room, if only for a few minutes. He held his breath as he slipped cautiously behind the riot robot. It appeared to take no notice of him whatsoever. Its gun pod was still leveled at the spot where he had been sitting. When he reached the door he announced loudly, "I am going into the hall to smoke now, okay?"

          Whirrr . . . click! "Move along sir. You are interfering with a police robot unit on duty."

          "Yeah, I can see that. Uh . . . what exactly is your duty, by the way?"

          Whirrr . . . click! "I am under orders to watch this chair."

          Larsen's cigar almost dropped from his mouth. He recovered and said, "Well, don't turn your back on it. I had a buddy of mine put in a hospital by a chair not half that size." He started to go into the hallway, but something made him turn and address the robot again. "Say, robot, the company that built you -- is it the same one that makes pyro-plast unions?"

          Whirrr . . . click! "I am manufactured by Tech-Force Industries. The pyro-plast union is manufactured by Pipe-Force Industries. Both are wholly-owned subsidiaries of FutureCrafts, Ltd."

          Larsen smiled and nodded. "Somehow I figured that."

          The hall was empty and, to his left, he could see a door that led to the street. It would have been easy enough to walk outside and disappear into the crowd. But reason prevailed. After all, the entire day had been an exercise in absurdity, a scene more bizarre than any he could have fashioned for his novel. Surely, the confusion would soon be resolved. He didn't want to make matters worse by actually doing something illegal. He turned in the opposite direction and walked towards the holding cell where he had awakened earlier.

          The Lara Prim android was seated placidly on the corridor bench where Vinny, the pimp, had left her an hour earlier. Larsen sat beside her and examined her artificial exterior curiously. The look of the android was incredibly lifelike. With her head against the concrete-block wall and her eyes closed, she looked for all the world like a movie star taking a cat nap. He couldn't resist touching one of her somaplast arms. As Vinny had assured him, the skin felt real, however, the micro-heating elements had been turned off for so long that the artificial flesh was cold. Larsen leaned against the wall and enjoyed his cigar. As he did, he couldn't help but fantasize about an evening with the Lara Prim look-alike. But the reality of having to work nights for a month to earn 900 extra credits for the experience struck his libido like a bucket of ice water.

          Larsen finally tossed the spent stogie onto the floor and made an effort to rise and return to the interrogation room. But the android held him there like a magnet. Some socially disaffected, pubescent impulse not extinguished by nine years of bad marriage and an ugly divorce caused him to look furtively in all directions then reached over and pryed the android's thin blouse open. At that instant the mechanical shackles sprang to life again. They attached themselves to the nearest metal object, the chest frame beneath the android's somaplast skin.

          The alarm that echoed the length of the hallway was loud and belligerent. Larsen tried to free his arms from the machine but the magnetic grip was too strong. The android only rolled over onto him and he discovered there was one significant difference between Lara Prim, the actress, and Lara Prim, the plastic hooker. The latter weighed a ton.

          A spine-chilling wail caused Larsen to look over his shoulder in alarm. At the end of the hall stood Vinny, horrified by the sight of his expensive creation being molested by a destructive anarchist. "Nooo," he squealed. "Let her go! Don't hurt her!"

          Vinny was thrust aside by a uniformed police officer. The cop sprinted down the hall towards him and yanked a large, non-descript weapon from a belt loop. Before Larsen could scream in panic that he was attached to an android through no fault of his own, there was a burst of gas from the muzzle of the weapon. He didn't know what hit him, but every nerve in his body went numb. He stiffened and rolled onto the floor with the Lara Prim look-alike on top of him. Wave after wave of electric shocks coursed through his body and caused his limbs to jerk uncontrolably. They also activated the android. He heard her words droning idiotically in his ears, "That's because I am Lara Prim. The studio gets so boring sometimes. That's why I like to come downtown . . ."

          As Larsen faded into unconsciousness, he thought Vinny should hire someone to write a better script for his imitation actress.

* * * * *

          A dense fog obscured his vision. Larsen closed his eyes tightly and tried again, this time with more success. A mauve-colored ceiling with four distinct corners came into focus. He was lying on his back in a room not much larger than the holding cell at the police station. But this time, he had no clue as to his whereabouts.

          He closed his eyes again and sighed deeply. Instantly an impatient voice rang in the small enclosure. "Would you mind not going back to sleep? I'm already late for an appointment."

          He tried to raise himself only to discover that his arms and legs were secured by fabric straps attached to the metal frame of a hospital bed. He craned his neck sharply upwards and to the left to locate the source of the voice. The sight of a riot robot hovering near a distant wall startled him. Beside it sat a man in a folding chair. Larsen opened and closed his eyes several times to clear his vision completely. The man was in his mid-thirties and had the look of a male model straight from the pages of some financial investment magazine. He wore an expensive wool blend suit, tailored shirt, thin brown tie and black leather shoes. The man glanced at his wristwatch and said, "They told me you should have come out from under the sedatives twenty minutes ago." His tone indicated that he somehow blamed Larsen for the delay.

          Larsen croaked, "Where am I? The last thing I remember, a cop shot me with . . . something."

          The young man opened a folder in his lap and drew a pair of stylish glasses from his shirt pocket. He said, "You're in the City Hospital psychiatric ward. Your were hit with a nerve scrambler and then sedated."

          "Who are you? The doctor?"

          "I'm your court-appointed lawyer."

          Larsen ached from his neck to his ankles. He asked, "How long have I been out?"

          "Hmmm?" The young man was reviewing a page in the folder. Larsen had to repeat the question. "Oh, I don't know," the man muttered impatiently. "You were brought in yesterday afternoon, I think. It's Tuesday morning."

          "Good grief! In the last 24 hours I've been unconscious more than I've been awake. Listen, this is all some kind of weird mistake. You should be able to clear things up pretty quick."

          "You'll be pleased to know that I already have," the lawyer replied. "The assistant D.A. happens to be an old school chum of mine. We played a few sets of squash early this morning and I plea bargained your case."

          Larsen exclaimed, "Plea bargained my case? What do you mean you plea bargained my case? I haven't done anything."

          "My, my, aren't we the modest one?" the lawyer replied as he rustled through the papers in his lap. "Let's see here . . . one count of possession of illegal explosive compounds with criminal intent to use."

          "I didn't know you could make bombs from that stuff!"

          "Mmmhmmm. One count of destruction of private property."

          "What private property?"

          "Three hundred thousand credits worth of rare tropical plants. Why on earth would you blow up a greenhouse?"

          "I didn't blow anything up. They arrested me before I could repair a hot-water line . . . oh, never mind."

          "One count of criminal insanity."

          "What?"

          "You attacked a riot robot with a pipe wrench. I'd say that definitely qualifies. Well, well . . . look at this. They should have added a second count. It says here you wrote an entire book with a typewriter. A person would have to be crazy to do something like that." The lawyer flipped another page. "One count resisting arrest. One count of attempted escape from police custody. One count of assault with intent to commit rape."

          "She was an android!" Larsen exclaimed. "And I was just trying to get a look at her . . ." The absurdity of his act embarrassed him. "Well, I wasn't trying to rape her."

          "Two witnesses, a police officer and a fellow named Vinny swear that you were. Besides, it doesn't say anything here about an android." Larsen groaned.

          "And, of course, there is the charge of anarchism."

          "That's not true. Nobody can prove that!"

          The lawyer closed the folder and shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. It really doesn't matter. You see, while you were out the D.A. had the hospital computer run a complete sociological and psychological profile on you. Based upon your past history, I am afraid the results weren't very promising."

          "What's that supposed to mean?"

          "You're a disaffected artist who is dissatisfied with his station in life. You exhibit signs of anti-social behavior, violence . . ."

          "Violence? Says who?"

          "Your ex-wife for one."

          "Well that lying tramp! I ought to . . ." He had to forcibly throttle the natural impulse to threaten her verbally. "I never laid a hand on Linda."

          The lawyer shrugged with indifference. Larsen demanded, "You are my lawyer and I want something done about this! How can they get away with running a profile on me while I'm unconscious?"

          "Nothing illegal about that. After all, why would they need you? Most everything you've done is recorded on some computer and, in the final analysis, people are a predictable lot. Face facts, Mr. Larsen or Tennian or whoever the hell you are, the computer is right. There is a 78.4 percent probability that if you aren't a bad egg now, you are going to turn out to be one in due time."

          "You mean that I am being charged with a crime that I might commit?"

          "Don't you read the newspapers?" the lawyer asked. "Crime is rampant across the solar system and people are sick of it. Why, the last global poll indicated that 89 percent of all registered voters want criminals identified and put away before they can commit a crime. Now, I ask you, what judge in his right mind is going to risk his career on a guy with odds of success as low as yours?"

          Larsen rolled his head back onto his pillow and stared at the ceiling in utter disbelief. The lawyer continued, "Listen, I want you to know that you got my best shot . . . even though I'm not making a dime on this one. I talked the D.A.'s office down to five years on Saturn's prison moon, Titan."

          "Five years?" Larsen screamed. "Prison moon?" The plumber strained futilely against his bonds. Suddenly, the riot robot came to life. It bobbed once and loaded a round into the chamber of its gun pod. That action calmed him considerably.

          The young lawyer grew indignant. "You should be happy with the deal I cut for you. The D.A. was asking for a laser lobotomy and forced sterilization. They way I see it, I saved your brains and your balls."

          There was a moment in which Larsen explored the depths of self-pity. But that gave way quickly to a fit of uncontrollable giggling. "I guess . . . hee, hee . . . there's no appeal either . . . hee, hee?"

          "I suppose you could make an appeal," the lawyer answered. "But with the courts as crowded as they are, it won't be heard for at least four years. So, you'll have to make it from Titan."

          Larsen roared with laughter. The apparent fit of mirth unnerved the lawyer who quickly gathered his papers and briefcase and hurried to the door. Once at a safe distance he turned and asked, "What's so funny?"

          Larsen regained control long enough to gasp, "What's so funny? I am probably the first guy in history to go to prison for being an attempted novelist." He guffawed again and the lawyer beat a hasty retreat, convinced more than ever that his court-appointed client was a lunatic.

          It took some time for the fit of laughter to abate; then Larsen lay in silence watched by his dispassionate metal companion. He couldn't help but think how his life mirrored the short history of his novel. His manuscript had laid helpless on six publisher's tables while it was reviewed by machines that cared only for form and not for substance. It was judged and sentenced on mathematical probabilities without regard to its promise or content. And, in the end, it was condemned to cold obscurity with no chance of appeal.

          Yes. It was enough to make one consider a life of crime.

* * * * *

Larsen's hand found the capsule-shaped pocket lantern floating a few inches above his head and directed its beam into the maze of white pipes. He discovered two small valves: one blue and the other red. Experience caused him to reach for the blue one and twist its handle clockwise.

          Immediately, one of the pipes acquired a life of its own and vibrated frenetically. Larsen only had time to scream, "No, robot! Turn the pressure down! Turn it down!" Then one of the pyro-plast unions ruptured. The narrow access corridor was instantly filled with steam and a fine spray of super-heated water. Larsen cursed as the droplets fell lazily onto the back of his neck like hot snowflakes. He turned to run, but his head collided with a pipe bracket. When he cried out in pain, his cigar fell from his lips to a watery grave.

          Larsen clambered through the confused network of pipes clutching his injured head, howling threats of dismemberment at his robot helper and invoking divine wrath upon the craft guilds whose slip-shod workmanship had fashioned this plumber's nightmare. Purely by accident, he stumbled over the antique shut-off valve. It jutted up incongruously from the floor, and, among the mob of modern plumbing materials gathered about it, looked like some anachronistic afterthought of a job foreman.

          Larsen hastily pulled the plumbing diagram from his belt holder and searched for the valve but to no avail. The lantern was too far away, suspended in space near the broken union. He quickly examined the fitting in the dim light. It was thrust into the center of a large, insulated pipe. That probably meant it was a hot water feed line, but in this plumber's madhouse, it was anyone's guess. He voiced a silent prayer, gripped the circular metal handle and twisted. At first it seemed jammed; then, he remembered that all antique fixtures closed by screwing their valve stems to the right. The handle turned easily. Larsen felt another wave of 20th century nostalgia. That was an era when plumbers were true craftsmen. Before the guilds. Before pyro-plast unions. Before the low-bid, corner-cutting, get-the-job-done-by-three-o'clock attitude of modern times. The antique valve bottomed out and, although the steam in the small enclosure obscured his vision, silence screamed success.

          His sense of elation vanished quickly. He turned and howled through the meter-square access door to his right, "Robot, you tin-plated idiot! Where are you?" No answer.

          Larsen crawled head first into the brightly lit hallway. In his mind he was drafting schemes that would allow him to demolish the maintenance robot without incurring additional prison time. His malevolent musings were cut short by the sight of a pair of jointed metal boots coated with the reddish-brown dust of Titan. His eyes moved upwards, tracing the lines of a bulky enviro-suit built to withstand the harsh atmosphere of the prison moon. An agitated face jutted through the opening at the top. Under his left arm, the man carried his helmet. It was emblazoned with the insignia of a prison guard. In his right hand he held a Mobile Console Board about the size of a pocket paperback novel.

          The guard raised the MCB to his face and examined its small view screen. Then, he gave Larsen a dubious glare. "You are Tran B. Larsen, aren't you? Prisoner number 761A529?"

          Larsen sat with his back to the cold metal wall and wiped sweat and water from his face with a soiled shirt sleeve. He answered the question with a nod.

          The guard continued peavishly, "You're supposed to be confined to the Solitary Ward. What are you doing over here in Cell Block Two?"

          Larsen dug into his back pocket, produced a soggy slip of blue paper and handed it to the guard. "It's signed by the warden himself," he said. "I'm to be taken out of the academic rehab program and shifted to trade rehab. It seems that plumbers are in short supply beyond the Martian colonies." He jerked his head in the direction of the access corridor. "And good ones are nearly an extinct species out this far. Take a look in there if you don't believe me."

          The guard's face darkened. "Explain," he said bluntly.

          Larsen thumped the back of his head to the metal wall. "Well, it's like this. The warden read my newest novel."

          "And?"

          "So his review was, and I quote, 'inane drivel best suited for lining the bottom of a parrot cage.' He couldn't understand why I've been confined to solitary for the last three years and he thought I should do something more in keeping with my natural talents . . . like plumbing."

          There was a moment of silence, then the storm broke with such ferocity that it caused Larsen to jump. The guard heaved his console board the length of the hallway, and it shattered into a thousand useless circuits against a nearby wall. His helmet fell to the floor with a bang. He shook his fists at the ceiling. He paced up and down howling curses at the top of his lungs. "That's it!" he threatened. "I've had it with that jackass of a warden. He's been a thorn in my side ever since they transferred him here from never, never land!" The guard stopped in front of Larsen and pointed a gloved finger between his eyes. "Do you know that he did to Thul Wilhelmsen?"

          Larsen racked his brain unsuccessfully in a attempt to recall who Thul Wilhelmsen was.

          The guard didn't wait for an answer. "Took him out of the art program," he raged. "Can you believe that? The finest painter on Titan and he took him out of the art program." The guard strutted down the corridor, wiggling his hips comically imitating the warden's curious manner of walking. But the bulk enviro-suit diminished the effect considerably. His voice squeaked derisively, "Appeals to the prurient interests . . . techniques without substance . . . demeans women . . . a moral travesty . . ."

          Suddenly, Larsen remembered Thul. He was a prisoner in Cell Block Six. Life imprisonment for a series of multiple rapes and murders. He had seen one of Wilhelmsen's paintings hanging in another inmate's cell. It was a super-realistic portrait of a young nude woman being raped by a half dozen hooded Inquisitioners. It was one of the artist's few "soft-core" works.

          The guard spun on his heel and again pointed a finger at Larsen. "So, what happens? The warden shifts Thul to chemical synthesis and the first day, the first damn day, Thul burns both of his hands. It'll be months beofre he can paint again and I've got orders for three canvases from a guy on Mars. Cash deals! I'm talking major credits here. Now this idiot is starting on you!" Again the man shook his fists at invisible foes and raged in broken, incoherent phrases.

          Larsen pushed hard with his legs and rose slowly, his back to the smooth wall. "Frank." He spoke too softly at first to attract the red-faced guard's attention. He repeated too loudly, "Frank, it's all right. I needed a break." The guard's tirade was cut short as though a switch had been turned in his throat. His face snapped in Larsen's direction. "What do you mean you needed a break?" The question sounded more like an accusation.

          Larsen shook his head despondently. "Look, Frank, when the warden called me in, I'd been sitting in my cell for a week and do you know how many pages I'd written?" He held up a thumb and index finger joined in a circle. "Frank, let's face it. I'm burned out with Rock Slate. In the last three years I've written eight detective novels about the guy . . . nine if you count the one that got me put here. I don't know what to say about him anymore." He sighed heavily. "You know, Frank, I learned something about myself today. I'm one helluva plumber. In fact, I may be one of the last real plumbers in the solar system. While I was sweating my rear end off inside that mechanical room. I found out that was important too. One of these days, Titan won't be a prison colony. It'll be transformed into a giant chemical synthesis factory with thousands of working stiffs out here trying to eke out a living on this miserable rock. It would be nice if their toilets worked."

          The prison guard lifted his helmet from the floor and walked slowly towards him. Larsen flinched as a strong arm encircled his shoulders and drew him into the bulk of the enviro-suit. He was peeled from the wall and they physically ushered down the corridor towards the airlock. A sardonic smile spread across the man's face. He nodded and said, "Tran, that is truly a noble sentiment. But I have one little question. How the hell do you propose to do your plumbing work after Simon Karkov and his boys in Cell Block Three break your arms and legs?"

          Larsen's heart sank. The guard crooned, "Now don't tell me you've forgotten all about Uncle Simon's advance on your next book? Remember? Those authentic Havana cigars you've been smoking for the past month. Those bottles of fine Jamaican rum." The guard released his grip on Larsen's shoulders long enough to slap him on the back . . . hard. "I'm more than your business partner, Tran. I'm your friend. And I'd really hate to see something like that happen to you. But do you know what I would hate to see even more than that. I would hate to see Simon break my arms and legs because I happened to have cut the deal for that little advance."

          Larsen opened his mouth to form some feeble reply, but the guard cut him off. "Tut, tut, tut! Let me finish Tran. You see, it's not just lack of pain or the good booze or the comfortable furnishings in your private cell or the food straight from the guard's kitchen that should inspire you to write. There is a principle to be considered here, my friend." The guard made a sweeping motion with this free arm. "Right now there are over a hundred thousand people spread across the surface of Titan. Most of them have a lot of time on their hands and you can't just have them sitting around with their thumbs up their kazooes. They'll start raising Cain. So, like little children, you have to entertain them. But half of them are sick to death of holovision reruns and the junk Walton Bookstores sends up here for them to read. Different titles. Different covers. Same old crap."

          They stepped into the airlock chamber and Frank touched a red button that caused the heavy inner door to drop from a hidden recess in the ceiling. Magnetic couplings locked into floor tracks and there was a thump of air as the mechanism formed a compression seal. The guard motioned towards a enviro-suit on a wall hanger. Meekly, Larsen began to work his way into its thick folds of fabric, metal, wiring and plastic tubes.

          Frank continued his monologue. "That's where Rock Slate comes in, my friend. The books you've written about him aren't akin to anything else. That's why so many people up here like them. And whatever people like they are willing to pay for . . . or, in our case, barter for. Now, do you really want to disappoint all those Rock Slate fans just so you can stick your face inside a few Johns again, especially when you consider how much more one of your books makes for you here than it would back on earth?"

          Larsen looked plaintively at his companion. "Okay, Frank. Okay. I get the point. But what's the difference? I've been chained to that typewriter for the last three years and I'm worn out with it. To tell you the truth, I just don't think there's another Rock Slate novel in me."

          The guard reached over and patted Larsen's cheek playfully. He smiled shrewdly and winked. "Not to worry, my friend. I've got a little surprise waiting for you in the warehouse. A sure-fire cure for writer's block."

          The trek across Titan's murky, barren surface took less than an hour. Larsen sat in silent despondency on the back of the multi-track vehicle and glumly counted the puddles of liquid methane that sped by them. Through the speakers in his helmet he could hear the guard cheerily humming some obscure tune.

          They entered the warehouse area through a mechanical room away from guards or prisoners. Frank hardly gave Larsen the time to place his helmet on the air-lock wall before dragging him into a nearby storage bay. In a remote corner stood a six-foot packing crate with Frank Hardwig's name and government serial number emblazoned across the front. The guard began unlatching the metal couplings with the enthusiasm of a school boy. He grinned at Larsen and said, "She came in yesterday."

          The metal door swung open to reveal a stunning teenage girl encased in molded styrene. She wore tennis shoes, white calf-length socks, a short pleated skirt and a bulky sweater with the initials UCLA emblazoned across the chest. Her blonde hair was tide back into a pony tail with a red ribbon and bow.

          Larsen gasped in disbelief. "My god, it's Marsha . . . Rock Slate's girlfriend in the books!"

          Frank winked and replied cheerily, "Right you are, my boy!" Then, he turned the girl's head slightly and inserted a screwdriver deep into her left ear. Marsha's eyes instantly opened.

          Whirrr . . . click! "Ooohhh . . ." she moaned. "Where am I?"

          Frank reached for a cardboard box sitting on the floor next to the crate and handed it to the android girl. Again he winked knowingly at Larsen. "Why, you're at cheerleader try-outs. Why don't you show us your stuff?"

          Larsen watched in awe as the android produced a pair of silver and red pom-poms from the box and began whirling about the storage bay in a strange and highly suggestive dance routine. It was like witnessing a scene he had written for his first novel come to life before his eyes.

          Frank appeared immensely satisfied by the display. He draped an arm over Larsen's shoulders and leered at the android's lewd gyrations.

          "Where in the heck did you come up with her?" Larsen asked incredulously.

          "I got her from an old friend of yours: Vinny Testerman."

          It took a moment for the name to register. "Vinny, the pimp?"

          "That's him! He sent Marsha along with his compliments. He said you knew her in a former life when she went by the name of Lara Prim . . . whoever that is."

          "A big holovision star three years ago."

          Frank looked surprised. "No kidding? Well, they come and go in a cloud of dust back in Hollywood, huh?"

          "But why would Vinny send her to me? She must cost a fortune."

          Frank slapped him on the back and said, "Why, you own her, my friend . . . and me too of course. Same as always. Seventy-five percent for you. Twenty-five percent for me."

          "Own her? How could I possibly own her? I couldn't make that many credits in a lifetime!"

          "Credits, credits, credits. Tran, my boy, credits are just another form of barter. Do you remember that old plumbing book I borrowed from you a few months ago?"

          "Sure. Zen, Haiku and the Art of Transcendental Plumbing. What about it?"

          The guard beamed. "Well, it just so happens there are some real anarchists on this mud ball and the guy who wrote that book, Hamada Karimatsu, was their grand high pooh-bah and number-one crazy. That book you owned happened to be an autographed copy of the old nut's first published work. It was also a first edition in mint condition. I got the name of a collector on Earth who was willing to pay through the nose to get his hands on it. Oh, it wasn't enough to cover little Marsha here, but when I told Vinny you'd be out in a couple more years and remembered his testimony against you on that trumped-up rape charge, you'd be amazed how much he came down off his asking price. She is an older model with some mileage on her, but she's in great shape."

          The android came bumping and grinding down the corridor formed by packing crates and stacks of plastic barrels. She voiced some primitive war chant and flashed them a seductive smile as she whirled past like a dervish.

          "No kidding?" Larsen mused aloud.

          "Frank slapped his back again. "You see? That's the problem with you artist types. You never know what you've got or how to go about marketing it. That's why you need guys like me."

          Larsen eyed him dubiously.

          The guard's face acquired a sudden sobriety. "But don't think she's all looks and no brains. It seems Vinny had a good friend in Hollywood with a collection of old television detective episodes from the 20th century. He programmed all those scripts into her memory. She is a veritable gold mine of information."

          "Frank, that plagiarism!"

          "Plaigiarism? When did I suggest you plaigiarize? I said information, my friend. You can use Marsha here to get the juices flowing . . . if you know what I mean." And Frank voiced an obscene laugh that caused Tran's face to flush. Here is your prescription, Tran, straight from the doctor's mouth. I want you to take Marsha back to your cell, open a bottle of good Jamaican rum and play Rock Slate for the weekend. Believe me, she's programmed for her part. I'll bet that by Monday you'll be working on an inspired plot."

          Frank started to leave but a sudden thought made him pause. "Oh, by the way, I'm off for three days starting next Friday. Bring Marsha around to my quarters Thursday night, okay?"

          The guard was nearly to the storage bay door when Larsen called to him, "Frank, you're forgetting about the warden. He's reality."

          "You're right, Tran, and so is Simon Karkov. I think its time for the good warden to have a little accident. Oh, nothing too severe . . . a pair of broken legs maybe. Just enough to get him shipped back to earth and out of my hair."

          Larsen grimaced and muttered, "I guess that's one way to handle a literary critic."

          From the doorway to the cell blocks, Frank studied his ward for a moment. For a few seconds his face evidenced genuine concern for another human being. "Tran, what is the matter with you? Right now, you look like the poor shmuck who stepped off that prison ship three years ago. Don't you have what you wanted? You're a successful novelist."

          "A success? Frank, this is a prison moon for crying out loud."

          The guard shrugged. "So what? There are writers living in New York City right now who wish they had what you've got, my friend. Good booze. A fine-looking woman. Three square meals a day. A comfortable little apartment, and adoring fans." Frank laughed cynically. "Hell, if that isn't success, I'd like to know what is. So lighten up, Tran, my boy. For the first time in your life, the percentages are in your favor."

          Frank gave him a knowing wink, one that had probably been patented by the first literary agent in history. Then, he disappeared into the cell blocks outside the storage bay and the door closed automatically behind him.

          Larsen stared dreamily at the numbers on a nearby packing crate, mulling over Frank's words in his mind, wondering why he didn't feel successful. Finally, a loud chant from his new possession distracted him. He spotted her at the far end of the storage bay atop a stack of pallets, performing what appeared to be a ritual mating dance in front of an industrial generator. The sight of her ridiculous antics grieved him deeply. He mumbled to himself, "It didn't seem so stupid when she did it in the book."

          Larsen brought his fingers to his mouth and whistled loudly. Marsha bounded to the floor and ran to him like an eager pet. She stopped inches from him, an idiotic grin pasted across her youthful face. "Hi!" she said happily. "My name is Marsha. What's your name?"

          He meant to say Tran Larsen but some fatalistic view of life caused his vocal chords to form the words, "Rock Slate."

          Whirrr . . . click! The android's logitronic brain accessed a new file. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately. He felt the softness of her Somaplast lips, the warmth generated by the micro-heating elements beneath her artificial skin and the wetness of her mouth that was the result of a sophisticated oral lubrication mechanism. Larsen pulled away from her with great difficulty, wondering just how long he would be able to separate reality from fantasy.

          "Ohhh, Rock," the android moaned. "I've missed you so much."

          Larsen cleared his throat and asked, "Would you mind waiting here for just a few minutes?"

          It took him some time to get out of the enviro-suit and hang it in the air-lock chamber. When he returned to the storage bay the android was waiting patiently by the exit that led to the cell block. He noticed she had attached a blue identification tag to her UCLA sweater. I would guarantee no hassles with the guards. Inwardly, he whistled in admiration. The creator of this android had gone far beyond his limited skills at fiction, fashioning a product that lived equally as well in either the world of man or myth."

          Another person would have passed the small puddle of water on the floor without noticing it. But it caught Larsen's eye immediately. He paused to trace the leak and spotted a silver droplet oozing from a pyro-plast union joint. Reaching into he webbed tool belt he produced a small wrench, adjusted its teeth and clamped it about the union. A deft twist of the wrist and leak was sealed.

          Larsen felt a wave of personal gratification course through his soul over that minuscule accomplishment. It passed when he looked at the android. Larsen breathed a sigh of resignation and quoted a Rock Slate line from his first novel, "I hear you've been hanging around with some other detective types while I've been gone. Have you been a good little girl."

          Whirrr . . . click! "Oh, no Rock, I've been very bad, and you need to punish me for a long, long time. Please, take me to your apartment, and I'll confess everything."

          Marsha opened the door to the cell blocks and he submissively followed his plastic girlfriend down the corridor that led to his equally plastic new novel. As they walked, Marsha began imitating the voice of some fellow named Jim Rockford who happened not to be at home at the moment.

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Android 'lady of the evening' getting an adjustment. Illustration by John H. Leeper

Tran Larsen, like most writers, has a day job to help hold body and soul together while he writes his magnum opus. Unfortunately, even in the future a writer's day job can literally get him in hot water.


Children's author, singer, tankerman, newspaperman, John H. Leeper has help many positions in his 55 years on this earth.
To see a photo and learn a little more about him, go to John H. Leeper >>

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