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Posted by MasterofMetal on Jul 28th, 2013
"You know what, Alma, I can't believe I almost forgot that I have a sister."
"Sure do, we're twins, actually."
"So there's nothing different between the two of you?"
"No... not that I can think of. Not even fashion sense I don't think."
Jamie looked in the mirror to see Alma's jaws just close from making that sound of dismissal, "What?"
"Why'd you make that sound?"
"Oh, that? It's just Simon told me some things about the real world."
"Like... you'd never see his point of view."
"...You have a few days to persuade me."
Alma was silent for a long time and, consequently, Jamie was also silent.
"Not sure if I'd want a sibling."
"Sibling? Why've you got to talk so upper-class like?"
"I don't know. Simon talks with sophisticated words, I guess it rubbed off on me. He used to take acting lessons in high school, you know, maybe that's where he got it from."
"Yeah, I know. After finding that skeleton in New Mexico-"
"He told me about that!"
"...After finding that skeleton, the museum payed him a heap of money, and as well as university, he then went into serious acting jobs."
"So why didn't he stay in the city?"
"Two reasons. One, the stages have slowly been closing down one by one for movie theatres. Two, he kept saying something like he couldn't stand the cityscape. I guess my family agreed, that's why they moved to Kelowna and Val stayed here."
"So, ‘Val' is your sister?"
"Where'd you go?"
"I went with my Mom and Dad. Valerie stayed and became a palaeontologist. She's semi-famous now, discovering at least three new species."
"You wanted to become one too?"
"Well, yeah, but my parents needed me. I went with them but Val stayed. Now I'm wishing I took the risk too."
"So where does Valerie live?"
"Oh! Almost forgot again. Val actually lives somewhere further up Interstate 90. So we might actually be able to pay her a visit."
"But what about Ethan?"
"What about him? Do you have a time limit?"
"Then why the rush? Take your time. Enjoy the views."
"All I see is desert."
"C'mon, Alma, look beyond what you see."
"I meant it as a metaphor."
Jamie sighed audibly and an awkward silence descended.
What makes you think you want a brother or sister, Alma?
I don't know. Maybe because I've never actually seen another coelophysis, let alone dinosaur.
I'm not even remotely close to being a sibling, am I?
Not even close. Was it not you that about five days ago said you would enjoy watching the life drain from my eyes?
Well... yes... but can't we consider that to be all in the past?
Not until you give an apology.
Well then I'm sorry.
Not good enough.
How else am I supposed to say it?
With empathy. Say it like you mean it.
But I do mean it.
"I didn't think so."
Then tell me what to say!
"Say it properly."
But what is the proper way?
"An apology is proper when it comes from the heart."
But we don't have hearts!
"Well then you're going to have a lot of trouble aren't you?"
Tell me! Please!
Alma! Please! Just tell me what to say!
I'm not saying anything.
God damn it, Alma!
I don't know how!
"Then teach yourself. With your adaptive nature it shouldn't be hard."
Bloody hell, Alma! I'm trying! Help me!
No. Say it.
"I said no."
For crying out loud, Alma, I'm sorry!
Why should I forgive you, Newblood? It's you they want, it should be you I blame.
So this is what it's all about?
"Say you're sorry!"
And say it again and again and again until you've got it, okay?
I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
"Now then, Newblood, what have we learned today?" Doctor Hargreave asked politely into the robot's face. His well shaved white beard and spotless glasses made him clearly distinguishable from the other visitors who always came in white coats. They rarely ever returned his hellos, and only ever spoke to Newblood to give orders. Of all the white-coat-clad visitors that came, Hargreave was the most familiar.
"Never question instructions again," the robot returned, much to the doctor's look of approval.
"Now you'd best remember that," Hargreave warned as he wiggled his index finger in front of Newblood's eyes. So far, only his box-like head ahd been completed, "I don't want you, especially you, misbehaving when the president comes in a few weeks time."
Newblood's single eye looked up, "Jonathon Fox? Is coming here?"
"Yes. And if you want to impress him I highly recommend that you do everything he or we ask without question. Is that understood?"
"What will you ask me to do?"
"Newblood, what did I just say?"
"Never to question instructions again."
"Precisely," the old man walked with long, purpose-filled strides over to a platform with a number of computer screens with flowing information on every one, "you'd better do everything we ask or else you'd fail to impress him. And if you fail to impress, you'll seem defective and worthless." He looked up from one of the screens he was typing into, most likely recording something in some kind of log, "You don't want to seem worthless, do you?"
"No." The reply was instant and grave.
Hargreave smiled, "Good," then looked down to do some more typing, "I'm putting my life on the line here, Newblood."
"Is that so?"
"Yes. You are a culmination of my entire life's research. Everything I've learnt has been put into both you and that chip you're in. If you fail, I fail."
"How does that work?"
"How does that work?" the doctor repeated as he stepped away from the platform and angrily paced his way to Newblood, "It means that if you fail to impress him, I am finished. It means that if you fail to impress him, that everything I've done; everything I've sacrificed for you to be alive right here, right now, everything I've sacrificed will be for nought! It means that if I fail to impress him, you'll be shut down, the Sky Ravens will be shut down, everything I've made for this project will be shut down too! It means that if I fail to impress him..." During this rant, Hargreave had his way around Newblood's pedestal and was now facing out of the glass enclosure that was Newblood's experimentation room. Hargreave gazed back to his creation, "If you do anything they don't like, heads will roll. Be sure of that."
"What am I going to do when he comes here?"
"Whatever we say."
"But if I want to get everything ri-"
"Not another word from you!" Hargreave said as he crossed back to the computer platform with a severity Newblood hadn't heard before.
"Not another word! Now say you're sorry another five-hundred times. Or do you want another electro-magnetic pulse through your system again?"
"You know how frustrating it is to recover from one of those. Say you're sorry five-hundred times precisely."
"In fact, screw the amount, say it again and again and again until you've got it, okay?! If I'm not satisfied with how many times, I press the button."
"Please! I'll be good!"
"Say you're sorry! Maybe I'll believe you then!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."
I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. No, I'm not sorry, screw it, I've had it with you Hargreave! I'm done saying sorry! You hear me, you bastard?! Do you hear me?! When I get my body, I'm going to rip you limb from blood-filled limb! I'm going to tear you to pieces, damn you!"
Newblood! Newblood, stop!
"Then I'm going to bash what's left of you're head in! Then I'm going to take your body out to the wild and leave it for wolves to eat!"
Newblood, listen! You have to stop! Now!
"Then I'm going to hunt down those wolves and burn them alive!"
"Then I'm going to rip out what's left of their stomachs and shoot them into the sun!"
STOP IT NOW!
"And I'm going to stick the bloody mess of your head on a pike for all of America to see! You hear me?! I hate you, Hargreave! I hate you! I hate you so much! I hate you more th-"
A hand slapped across Newblood's cheek and was simultaneously joined by a yell, "ALMA!"
Newblood finally gained sight, or more so, Alma's body finally allowed him to open its eyelids. The body was laying its back, and its back was lying on rocky, earthy sand. The legs and arms finally stopped flaying and now dangled in a limp kind of fashion. The first thing he saw when the lids opened was Jamie's long, brown, flowing, curly hair, then it was her fear-filled blue eyes looking directly into his, or rather Alma's eyes. Then it was the cloudless blue sky. Using Alma's body, he lifted the neck up and periscoped around to find the red Ute parked on the side of the road. There was a trail of shoeprints and claw marks on the ground leading to the current location no less than ten metres from the car. It was evidently a brutal transition from Alma to him, this time.
Newblood made the head turn back to face Jamie. Her lips began to part to say something. He hastily made a question of his own, "Why have we stopped?" Then he hurriedly jumped to Alma's feet and dashed for the car as if nothing had happened, somehow hoping the die would fall on the slim chance of her thinking the little psychotic episode was nothing worth noting. Foolish to think that would happen, he realised; Jamie was obviously far, far too intelligent for that tomfoolery.
"Alma, wait," Jamie called to him. It was alien responding to another alias, but Newblood stopped Alma's movements. He heard the human stand up from the dusty earth, "What the hell was all that?"
Newblood turned Alma's head to face Jamie, "Dreaming...?" was the first thing to pop into his mind, "Yeah, I was dreaming."
"What? We got to go."
"No one falls asleep that fast," Jamie observed, and it was a fair observation, as Alma had had plenty of sleep on the stops during the trip, "And that... that was a psychotic episode, that wasn't a dream of any kind. You were talking and yelling to yourself in there. I pulled over and pulled you out, but still you wouldn't stop. It was like you were... screaming in some deep sleep. That wasn't a dream, it wasn't even a nightmare, that was something else."
Newblood pressed Alma's jaw together harder.
"And what's with you're voice? You were talking like a girl before and now you're a man?"
"Would you believe I'm neither?"
Jamie turned her head away slightly, but still kept Newblood's gaze, "You mentioned something about a Hargreave fellow."
Her jaw was forced harder.
"Does he have something to do with any of this?"
I saw it all, Newblood, I did. Don't tell her! Don't tell her anything!
"Shut up, Alma."
"I said, more than you can imagine."
"Well then enlighten me, why don't you?"
"Not until we get to Darby."
"I don't see how that's going to happen."
"Seeing that my car runs on the truth, I don't see how you're going anywhere."
"And seeing I'm not going to tell you anything until we reach Ethan's, it appears we're at a stalemate."
"Well I'm not giving in."
"I know, and neither will I."
You're not going to tell her anything, are you?
Of course not. Not yet if I can help it.
"So what now, Alma? You telling me anything?"
"Then what? I'm not driving ‘til you give an explanation to what that was."
"Precisely. That's why I'm walking."
"You heard me. If you aren't driving, I'm walking instead, or I can always flag down another car. I'm sure there'll be one or two fascinated by a dinosaur walking along a desert highway."
That's taking it way too extreme, for you and me.
Well unless you haven't noticed, Alma, it's a bluff.
"So what's it going to be, Jamie? Can your conscience handle the thought of leaving someone out here in the desert for the cold?"
Nights out in the forest may have been cold, but that temperature paled in comparison to the desert's time of darkness. Alma's feet and hands were freezing in the lack of warmth that once used to burn them in the day. Being made of metal didn't make things any easier, in fact it amplified the cold and heat, and made her shiver and slow down to pant even more. Cold breezes made the situation all the worse. Unlike Newblood had said there would be, there hadn't been any cars coming along the road. Again, just like Simon, any hope of transportation was lost. The only thing to do now was to annoy the daylights out of the one responsible. No use keeping quiet; she was in the middle of nowhere, she needed an emotional release, and it may just cause a driver of a passing car to turn down the radio enough to wonder where that yelling was coming from.
"Oh yeah, this is fantastic, Newblood, this bluff of yours really paid off didn't it?!"
Well how was I supposed to know she'd just drive off? It's not like I have foresight or anything.
"Yeah, but I told you not to tell her anything! Now our only mode of transport's gone!"
Then please explain to me what action you're now doing with your feet. Walking isn't a viable option I take it?
Alma turned her head away from the horizon that had the road and looked over to the right across the seemingly endless desert, "Shut up."
My, my, how selfish we are.
"I said, shut up."
Letting someone else take the fall in your place eh? That's just low.
"I said, shut up, Newblood."
But now that I set things right and allow her to be safe, you're angry about it. Selfish, selfish little Alma.
"You know what, I'm not going to bother."
You used someone, Alma. You used her and you didn't tell her the risks. What would Simon say, I wonder?
Alma stopped dead in her tracks as a stone dropped inside her. Her jaw loosened and eyes widened. Simon. What would he say to her if he was there and knew everything that had happened in the past... five or six days - depending on the current time - what would he say? Probably ‘justified as it is, it was still wrong' or something like that. Naïve. Idiotic. Absolutely stupid. Those were words that should describe her now, not to mention deceitful, insincere, and unscrupulous. Exploiting someone to cut down distance she could easily cover herself. Newblood was right; how selfish was she.
The complete lack of light forbid the ability of sight, so she reached back to her right side and felt the brown, dusty satchel. It was the last gift Simon ever gave her. Did she even deserve it?
Alma's vision began to blur. She drew her hand up to her left and wiped away whatever was irritating it, only, the thing that was irritating it was wet; a teardrop. But it wasn't a teardrop, it was just water that had fallen from the heavens; no less than a second later rain started to drizzle down from the starry sky, which was now being covered by a blanket of grey clouds. The light of the pristine moon was the only thing that illuminated the ghostly sea of water vapour, whose shores were creeping ever further along the atmosphere.
"Well that's just absolutely perfect," Alma said sarcastically to herself.
Is that a service station over there?
Alma peered into the desert dark. Indeed there was a building there; a big red neon sign that clearly said, even with the rain now pouring down, ‘Joe's Gas and Diner'. How didn't she see the sign and lights through the windows before?
"Why do the owners always pick simple names if they're in the Dining business?"
Who cares! Shelter!
Understanding Newblood's simple statement, Alma dashed through the downpour towards the diner. She didn't want the books, let alone herself, getting wet, or any more wet than they probably were now. Even more important was the map; if that was stained or any ink ran then she'd probably be lost for a very long time.
Reaching the shelter of the diner's awnings, Alma shook and wiped what water she could off of herself, then did the same with the map and books. Neither were affected badly; she'd forgotten the map was plastic, and the book spines were the only sections that had raindrops on. It appeared Simon had already catered for the plausibility of rain, as it seemed the satchel was mainly waterproof. Alma simulated a heavy sigh of relief, and then packed away everything she'd took out. Weaving her head through the shoulder strap, she picked up her baggage and pushed open the diner's door with her head.
The instant her nose poked through the gap created by the door, a whole symphony of salivating smells, created by a deep fryer in the back rooms, invaded her nostrils. The scents of salads, beef, pork, chips, and some other less familiar ones, made her joints relax to the point her head was almost touching the ground. Sweet salty bliss. The sound of old, severely out-dated twentieth century music sailed its way into her ears on the wind of the aroma. The floor was made up of black and white tiles, patterned in a checkerboard formation. The floor was also somewhat sticky with the remnants of mustard, ketchup, soft drinks and juices and various other condiments and beverages that had long been cleaned up. Perfectly polished white wooden seating boxes with red-purple cushions and tables of the same hue of red made up the seating and eating arrangements. Ahead of her lay a counter with a few rotating stools allowing for customers to sit and order whatever they wanted, or whatever was available for purchase. The counter's colour scheme was in compliance with the other seats of the diner. Alma observed that there was not a single person occupying the space anywhere; spare the single, rather surprised-looking waiter, or receptionist, or teller person, or whatever. But the fact remained that he was standing behind the counter near a teller machine and was wiping the counter top clean with a tea towel. He was dressed in a white shirt and a grey apron, both of which were stained heavily, but they didn't smell of anything; indicating he cared for cleanliness. The man stopped wiping the tabletop for a moment as he examined his most recent visitor. Within seconds of Alma's arrival, the man broke out in a big, natural smile, and spoke in a confident tone.
"There've been many people that've come through that door there," he said while walking around the counter, "hundreds, hundreds of people in fact. But if I may say, you're the first ever customer that turned out to be a robot. Heh." The man squatted down before her. "What can I do you for, little one?"
Alma winced, "You could start by please not calling me that."
"Well I'm sorry, you have a name then by any chance?"
Wiping herself down, Alma felt a little embarrassed by the situation, "A-Alma. My name's Alma."
"Your name's Alma," the man repeated and nodded gently, "Well, Alma, welcome to Joe's Gas and Diner. What can I do you for? Fuel? Food? Helicopters?"
"Well actu... helicopters?"
"...Just trying to get your attention."
Alma laughed a little. She just realised that was the first time she'd done so in deities knew how many days, "Well actually, Mr...?"
"Kawasaki. Mister Josef Daniel Kawasaki. Try sayin' that five times fast."
"Bit of a mouthful isn't it?"
"Trust me, it looks better on paper. Now, as you were sayin', Miss Alma?" Josef took an unnecessarily courteous bow.
"As I was trying to say, I was actually just looking for some shelter to wait out the storm."
"And you were hopin' this placed would have a room to lease, am I right?"
Alma turned her gaze down to the ground, "If it wouldn't be too much to ask, yes."
"Oh, nonsense," he exclaimed, with a dismissive wave, "you don't need to buy anythin' to stay in here. Just because you ain't a customer doesn't mean you should be treated any differently. But by the look of that monster, I'm afraid you might want to stay the night."
"Oh, thankyou, Mister Kawasaki," Alma said with relief.
"Just call me Joe," he smiled and stood up, heading towards the counter again, "is there anywhere particular you want to stay? A bed perhaps?"
"A bed's okay, but I'm okay staying anywhere that's clean, really."
"Any specific requirements you need attendin' to?"
"Food? Water? Though I doubt you'd be needin' either of those."
Alma looked to her stomach region where her motor was. She wondered what exactly it ran on. As Simon hadn't told her, she returned with, "I don't think so."
"Nothing at all?"
"Well that's good, I guess."
Alma started listening to some of the ambient music that was playing from a jukebox in one of the diner's corners as she moved to one of the cushioned stools by the counter. Curiosity filled her mind.
"So how is it that a 1970s café comes to be in the middle of a desert?"
"Oh? And how is it that a fine lookin' robot such as yourself comes wanderin' through the desert?"
"Can you shorten your story?"
Joe pulled out a bottle of Rakia from a fridge concealed below the counter and took a big sip from it. Releasing his lips from the bottle, he shook his head vigorously, and finally began to speak.
"You know what this is called?" he asked while smiling as he pointed to the bottle that was still in his right hand.
The man threw back his head in laughter, "No. Not quite. You see, this here, this is called Rakia."
That comes from the Balkans, doesn't it?" Alma had no idea where she obtained that knowledge. Oh wait, yes she did. Newblood yet again. Though why he had an index of alcoholic beverages was beyond her.
"That it does," Josef replied, "My family was once very wealthy you know. We lived in Azerbaijan once; had a property almost as big as... as a palace. Or so it seemed as big as a palace when I was young. I would have been just taller than that stool you're on now. Our house oversaw a lake, or an oversized pond, I don't know. There were olive trees here and there so we could make olive oil to sell at the bazaar. My father and my mother had servants, they did, but they didn't treat them like slaves. I remember him saying to me ‘the age of slavery is over, why should we act like it isn't?' He was a great man, my father, and my mother was one of the kindest people in the world. She had such a soft touch. My father's favourite drink was Rakia, which he imported from Greece. Now it's mine. It reminds me so much of home. The sunrise and set. The olive trees. It's like I can taste the landscape."
"I don't mean to sound intrusive, but what happened?"
"You know of the World Economic Groups, don't you?"
"I hear a bit here and there."
"Well then you should have heard about the Turan Federation: a financial alliance that was to stretch from Turkey to as far as India, uniting all of the Middle Eastern countries. Brilliant, marvellous idea it was at the time."
"At the time?"
"I'm getting to that. While most of the countries agreed to this offer, there were some who felt like they were being pressured, bullied into it. There were others that loathed the thought of joining a group with other nations that followed a different interpretation of the Koran."
"You were religious?"
"Was. Before anyone could respond, Azerbaijan was invaded. By which of the other nations the Federation was to cover, no one can really say. It's still a mystery. But someone was hoping to use the Caucasus region as a staging area to get to Turkey. Someone wanted religious violence where Turkey wanted peace."
"What about you and your family?"
"Had to flee. The invaders were massacring the civilians; raining missiles on top of the people who were running. I saw that that's what they were doing to the nearest village. Father made all the arrangements to get everyone from our household out of Azerbaijan, servants included. The convoy had to stop a few times to pick up refugees. They told us stories. Horrible stories."
"My father learned from a survivor that his brother had been killed. The invaders... My uncle was given the invader's version of the Koran to memorise within a day. A single day. He was to recite it in front of his firing squad. If he said it all correctly, he'd be spared. He did, but they shot him anyway. They did the same with everyone else in his household."
"I don't know how many checkpoints we made it through, but eventually we all made it to the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - who was on Turkey's side and was trying to stop the invasion of the Caucasus. From there we made it to here, America. We all settled in Los Angles; a home on a hill overlooking the ocean, which reminded us all of the pond back home. The servants were permitted to resign and start new lives in a land of... opportunity and kindness. We tried to make do with what little money we had left, but apparently what wealth we had was almost worthless in America. But we were okay being commoners. It helped my mother and father settle down; feel less of a priority - thus less of a target. Mother died of a heart attack about a year after we migrated. Apparently the condition she had is easily preventable, but we just didn't have the money to pay for it."
"That doesn't seem fair."
"It isn't. I had to watch the life leave her eyes. Even in death, her kind look never frayed. It was best for her I guess."
"What do you mean?"
"You remember how I said America was a land of opportunity and kindness?"
"When I was turning twenty years old, and my father fifty, a new election was on for President. Jonathon Fox was his name, prejudice was his game, and I'll never forget that bastard's face. In just about every speech he ever made, he always put down Muslims indirectly. He blamed us, the refugees of the Turan War and other conflicts in the Middle East, for just about every fault in the American system. He blamed our high number; how we'd multiplied and somehow tainted the nation in the legal system, economic areas, and even in education. He said lies about us, so many lies, and the gullible people believed him and, in time, shared the same views as him. What little support there was for us was quickly overrun with hate. Christianity was, as it seemed, the only acceptable faith. Signs sprouted on shop windows saying that Muslims weren't allowed in. My father was murdered by a group of teenagers on his way from home, and there was no investigation. No fingers pointed or anything. It was like he was just a piece of paper to the legal system and nothing else. John gained so much support for his actions against ‘The Islamic Threat' that he won the election by a landslide. Then when he was sitting in his seat of power, he decided to revoke all his anti-Muslim policies. It was like he expected us to forgive and thank him. What sort of person is that? And what about my father? Was he nothing? Where was Allah for him there and then when he was driving home? I lost my faith in Him that day. If He had any idea what I'd been through, I'm sure He'd understand. The hate the populace had shown to us died as suddenly as it had started. But I didn't want any of the ‘benefits' or ‘compensations' Fox was handing out. I didn't want anyone. I didn't want the sights or sounds of the city. I didn't want to see another human being. That's why I moved out here. I get by quite well. I see better, kinder people than I did in Los Angles. And I'm living carefree."
"But why have your diner inspired by the 1970s?"
"Is there a reason why I shouldn't?"
"Then there. I had it built in this style because for much of the world, the 70s were a time of happiness: man landed on the moon after all! One flank of the Cold War was over and done with."
"That was some story."
"Relish it. I don't intend to repeat myself on that account. So what's your story, Alma?"
"If I may be honest?"
"Go ahead, I was as open as I could be just then."
"I'm still not sure about the details."
"What do you mean?" Josef asked as he produced another bottle of Rakia from the fridge.
"I've still got questions that need answers."
"Could I be of service?"
"No, no. These answers can only be answered by one man."
"Who would that be?"
"Simon - my creator."
"You mean your father?"
"Wha... no... no... not like that..."
"So who is he then? If not your father, then who?"
"...My best friend, I guess..."
"Well where is your best friend?"
"I don't know, that's why I'm going to his friend."
"I don't know him personally, but..."
Alma's attention had been drawn to something in the corner of the ceiling. It was a security camera.
"Are we being watched?" she queried, gesturing with her head to the device.
Josef followed her movements, "What? That? No. I run these cameras off my own grid. No government intervention here. I never liked that CTOS thing; sounded too controllin'. Unfortunately though, that means I have to pay the state to keep me off the main system. They're never on anyway; no one's coming all the way out here to rob this place. Although..." he ducked below the counter, "I do have another layer of defence."
This time, instead of a bottle, Joe pulled out a small firearm and laid it out on the tabletop.
"It's old, I doubt you'd know it."
"It's an MP443," Alma said with foreign enthusiasm, "they were the standard-issue sidearm of the Russian troops in the early twenty-first century."
"Correct," Joe said with a curious look on his face, "Owning a gun's illegal now, but what the government doesn't know won't hurt me."
"What do you mean they're illegal?"
"I mean, they're illegal; punishable with twenty-five years in prison minimum."
"Since the day he became president, Jonathon's been doing a lot of give and take with the people. Guns were a hot topic, especially after the Sandy Brooke massacre. The NRA... Don't you know any of this?"
"Where've you been for the last few years?"
"Either still in construction or in the Canada, with Simon."
"He was in the forest?"
"Yeah, a bit like you, only you're in the desert."
"Did he say why?"
"I know from a friend of his he doesn't really like humans either."
Joe laughed, "Unfortunately, the world's full of ‘em."
"So as you were saying?"
"Yeah, as I was saying, eventually the National Rifle Association turned out on top despite minor national but huge international disapproval. ‘Guns! Guns! Guns for everyone!' was their basic motto, even into psychologically unstable people. No wonder there were so many mass shootings throughout the rest of the century. So John decided to do something about it. He banned guns countrywide and replaced with the Central Terminal Operating System, or CTOS. Maximum security is what the people wanted, so maximum security is what the people got. Instead of personal handguns, there are fully automated turrets across all the towns and cities, and CCTV watches everything. As for that DNA scanning tech... That's where it gets too temperamental for me."
"I know what you mean."
"I don't see what the majority see in him. I wish I could get out of here, but I don't have enough money to get a plane ticket; I'm barely scraping up enough to pay for my own security system."
"But you seem happy."
"I am. But when that storm hits, and I don't mean the one that's already out there, but when the problems build up, something will break, and I'm fairly sure it won't be the tax collectors."
There was a short silence. An egg-shaped alarm rang to Alma's left.
"Nine thirty," Josef stated with a neutral expression, "Time to close up. There's a spare bed in the house section, it's just through the kitchen. I'll clean up here."
"I'm okay sleeping out here, thanks, I don't want to be much of a burden."
Joe shrugged, "Suit yourself. You want a blanket?"
"Just as I thought."
"You can feel things, can't you?"
"And smell and hear and seem if you were wondering."
He smiled with the same big smile when he first greeted her, "That Simon man must be a genius."
Alma picked the furthest seat from the door on the west side of the diner. Joe came back through with a dark green blanket and laid it over her.
"You too grown up for stories?"
"Well, actually I'm only two years old."
"So you want to hear one?"
"Not tonight, please, I'd better head out early tomorrow."
"Well then, g'night, Alma."
As she closed her tired eyes, Alma heard Josef's feet make their way to the diner's door. He flipped over the open sign to signify closing hour, but before he could walk away there was a knock at the door. A voice, muffled by the glass and drenching rain, came from outside. Josef opened the door for whoever the person was.
"I'm sorry but I couldn't quite hear over the rain and whatnot. What did you say, Miss...?"
"Atkins, look I hate to bother you," the woman said, and instantly Alma knew precisely who it was, "but have you seen a coelophy... a dinosaur-ish looking... type... robot walk by here sometime? May have helped her? Goes by the name of Alma?"
"Why yes, I've seen her," Alma replied, lifting her body from the sheet, "In fact, I think I am her."
"What brought you back?"
"For all I know, insanity."
"Er... I take it I'm missin' something here, ladies?"
"Joe, this is Jamie Eliza Atkins, Jamie, this is Josef Daniel Kawasaki."
"Just call me Joe and that'd be fine."
"Well, Joe," Jamie said as she shook his outstretched hand, "I've come to pick up Alma."
"And what makes you think I need picking up?" Alma retorted with a harsh manner, "I could still walk the distance."
"You're still angry aren't you?"
"No, it's just that you really shouldn't bother about me."
"What do you mean?"
Joe had a confused expression on his face, sensing it wasn't his place to know what the argument was about; he backed away and started cleaning up in the kitchen area of the diner, which was through a metal door.
"What I mean is that you were right to leave me."
"...What are you talking about Alma?"
"I mean..." Alma sighed with frustration, "My brain, my CPU... It's just all so screwed up!"
"Then tell me."
"You'd hate me for it."
"Hey. There's nothing to hate about the truth. As my father told me once, ‘the most bitter truth is better than the sweetest lie'."
"You're going to feel used."
"Then at least you warned me."
"...Then as far as he has told me... it all started when he found the coelophysis that was trapped in that cave..."