“Up On The Roof”

“Up On The Roof” appaeared originally in M-Brane SF #6

         Here and there Watchdogs roll on their caterpillar tracks, looking like miniature tanks, except for the steel jaws. At the edge of the grounds a wall of azure light shimmers, and on an acre of lawn, several fruit trees stand at various points. Jackson Kane stands by a ladder under the apple tree. Atop the ladder perches Vern, an android, and Jackson points out the three apples he deems most delectable. Vern picks them and climbs down, a straw basket on one palm. He proffers the basket, which also contains pears and peaches. 

            Jackson scrutinizes it, as though judging a still life, and nods. He looks at Vern, who wears coveralls and work boots. Jackson wears shorts and tank top; otherwise Vern is his mirror image: the exact same young face with full lips and a wide forehead above a tapering jaw line that makes the face almost heart-shaped. Like Jackson, Vern has sideburns and wears his hair in a pompadour.

            “Do you think Ms. Carlisle will like the fruit basket, sir?” Vern asks.

            Jackson’s stomach clenches. He has never had a long-term relationship, due–his virtual therapist says–to issues with trust and intimacy. He and Sandra Carlisle have been out three times and enjoy each other’s company. There is hope, maybe. She is coming for dinner that evening, but as they talked over the phone last night, it came out that they own the same number of androids, six. Jackson quipped, “You should bring your ‘droids. Make a party of it.” On the holographic screen, her face broke into a delighted smile and she insisted on doing just that. Now he dreads the complication.   

            He takes the basket. “These will do nicely, Vern.”

            Along a path of stones, they walk into the shadow of an edifice like some stone fortress. As they approach an oak doorway, it recedes, and an android identical to Jackson and Vern stands there in a doorman’s uniform. “Take those for you, sir?” He reaches for the basket.

            “Not necessary, Sam. I’m taking these up to Parker.” Jackson rides the escalator up two flights, to the kitchen, where a tangy fragrance suffuses the air. Clad in white apron, chef’s hat, and insulated gloves, another replica of Jackson eases an apple pie from the oven onto the counter.

            The scent of baking bread mingles with the pie’s. Beside racks of herbs under lights, Jackson plucks a sprig of basil and sniffs it. “Things appear to be progressing nicely, Parker.”

            “Yes.” Parker looks up from the pie. “Dinner will be fine.”

            Of that, Jackson has no doubt. He leaves the fruit basket, which is to adorn the dinner table, with Parker. Jackson rides the escalator to the roof and steps onto a patio, next to which lies a small lawn. Beyond that, a swimming pool shimmers, and beyond it, red, yellow, and white roses bask in sunlight filtered through a dome’s treated glass. The dome covers the roof except for a landing pad beyond a door past the flowers.

            He turns away, climbs three steps to a glassed-in dining room, crosses, and passes into a large rec room. At its edge the dome slopes down to form the wall. He walks over, and hands against the glass, again admires his fruit trees, lawn, Watchdogs, and security wall below. He pushes away, goes to a couch.                                                              He clicks on the holovision that fills the opposite wall, and tunes to “Cruel Streets.”  The segment ending is pedestrian: In an abandoned tenement, a homeless family has been found murdered. The next report is more colorful. A group of squatters has planted corn, potatoes, green beans, and squash. A gang of bikers with “Hell Hounds” lettered on their soiled denim jackets, demands half of the crop at harvest. Perhaps thirty confront the squatters, who are armed with clubs and rocks. The bikers snarl, threatening to destroy the crop. They fire up their battered mopeds, which whine like metallic hornets, and as they wheel off, smash several rows of corn.  

            Jackson turns off the holovision. Sandra has decreed that there will be dancing, and he checks the sound system. Then he rides the escalator down to the third floor and enters a large chamber. Just inside, a smiling mannequin in a gold jump suit stands, hand raised in welcome. On its base, gold letters read: ELVIS, CIRCA 1955. Jackson pauses in front of it.  He provided the mannequin’s creator holograms of Elvis taken from television and movies. The same holograms guided the manufacturer of Jackson’s androids and the surgeon who altered Jackson’s face, artists in their own right.     

            “Blue Moon of Kentucky” murmurs over hidden speakers. Along the walls pale light glow behind round covers with colored geometric designs. Between these, hang images of Elvis: photos, movie posters, and the more surreal–Elvis in Superman costume, flying above the Memphis skyline, Elvis at the Last Supper. In the middle of the room a trophy case holds 45’s, jumpsuits, capes, locks of hair, a trove of memorabilia. Jackson stops to admire a collection of police badges that belonged to Elvis.

            A young Elvis in black tuxedo emerges from a tiny office at the end of the room and sidles up. “Will you be needing anything, sir?”

            “Yes, Phil. I’d like that Elvis scrapbook the girl from Memphis kept.” Jackson enters the room’s walk-in closet.

            When Jackson emerges clad in a gold rhinestone jumpsuit, Phil brings him the scrapbook, and Jackson sits in an easy chair, where he alternates between leafing through the scrapbook and wondering how Sandra would look. Exactly as he is obsessed with Elvis, she is obsessed with Madonna. But as which of Madonna’s incarnations will she appear? He sits with eyes closed, when Phil taps his shoulder. “Sir, Ms. Carlisle is to arrive momentarily.”

            He springs from the chair, takes the escalator to the roof, skirts the pool, and trots down a short flagstone walk through the roses to the doorway. Sandra Carlisle’s armored air-van approaches, and lands on the roof, beside his. Its side door slides open, and seven blond women with scarlet lips emerge, all wearing black leather corsets, black shorts, fishnet hose, and heels.

            His gaze darts from one to the next. Which is Sandra? As they come up to him, the blond in the lead throws her arms open and jumps into his arms. “We’re here! Ready?”

            Hiding disorientation behind a grin, he swings her around and laughs. “Definitely.”  He cocks his head. “Ready.”

            They go in, and her androids go to join his below. Sandra and he sit in lounge chairs by the pool. She throws her arms wide and cries, “What a place, so comfy. Why don’t we skinny dip?”

            His heart races, but something bothers him, a hangover from his disorientation as she and her androids disembarked. What if he isn’t with Sandra but one of her androids? Wouldn’t that be like her? His frolicking naked with one of her droids, while she laughs. He studies her. The Roman nose, heart-shaped face, blue eyes: it looks like Sandra. She, however, has undergone surgery to appear identical to Madonna; they share an obsession with Twentieth Century pop icons. But her androids also look like Madonna. How is he to know?            

            As she leans toward him, squeezing his thigh, an idea comes.

            “Skinny dip?” she asks again.

            Jackson smiles. “OK, sure. I wanted to show you the grounds, though.”

            He leads her to the couch in the rec room and tunes the television to the channel that monitors his grounds. A view fades in of the apple tree against the background of the shimmering blue security wall.

            The remote control also accesses his main computer, and furtively he taps in directions. Then he uses the controls to show her the grounds: fruit trees, security wall, Watchdogs, who spread their serrated jaws as the camera zooms in. Just as Sandra begins to fidget and glance back toward the pool, the security wall flickers off, and the Watchdogs coast to a stop.

            He curses. “Security system.”

            He stalks to the house phone and pretends to notify Vern of the problem. As he returns, she leans forward, frowning. He sits down beside her, breathes deep and swallows. “Not to worry. The house is secure. It’s just the Watchdogs and security wall. They should be back up soon.”

            She scrunches up her face. “This happens often?”

            “Ever since that virus the People’s Liberation Force loosed, my security system has had problems.” He smiles reassuringly.

            He looks back to the television, where views of various portions of the grounds alternate. Minutes drag by. And then what he expects appears. It could hardly be better: three grimy urchins in tattered clothes, a girl and boy, both around twelve, and a smaller boy of eight or nine.

            “Intruders,” he hisses.

            Sandra looks at them and shakes her head.

            The smaller boy clambers up the apple tree and flings down apples, as the older boy shouts encouragement. The girl stretches out the bottom of her shirt to hold the apples and peers first over one shoulder, then the other. The smaller boy springs from the tree and scampers over to the next, a peach.

            “Ricky! No!” the girl cries. “Let’s go. Before we get in trouble.”

            “C’mon, Jen,” the older boy scoffs, “let’s get some more.” He runs over and stands catching the peaches Ricky tosses down. As if pulled against her will, Jen goes to them.

            “Thieving little beggars,” Jackson sniffs. “I should have Vern run them off, on general principles.”

            Sandra lays a hand on his forearm. “Do you have to?” She leans toward him with a smile. “They look starving.”

            He smiles back and shuts his eyes, shaking his head. “I guess they can have a few more minutes.”

            The children dash to a pear tree that stands by the mansion. Once little Ricky is up the tree, Jackson surreptitiously taps the controls at his side. On two Watchdogs near the children, red sensor lights wink on. In small, sluggish circles, the Watchdogs begin to roll. Steel jaws yawn, clang shut. Jen’s eyes widen.

            “Ricky!” she screams. “The things! Get down!” She jabs a finger at the Watchdogs. “They’re on!”

            Ricky leaps down. Jen looses her shirt, spilling the fruit. The three flee like deer.  The Watchdogs begin to pursue, steel jaws spread.

            Sandra shakes Jackson’s arm. “Do something! Before they get hurt!”

            Out of her line of sight, he again adjusts the controls. In the middle of the grounds two more Watchdogs come to life. “It’s going to be all right,” he says. “The security wall’s still down. The Watchdogs are programmed to stop at the edge of the grounds.”

            “Are you kidding?” she screams, shoving his shoulder. “Look!” 

             Wide-eyed, sobbing, the fleeing children fill the screen. Two more Watchdogs are rolling in from the sides, while the two behind draw closer. Shrieking, the children put on a burst of speed that carries them just past gaping jaws.

            “Do something!” Sandra screams. Jackson watches as though transfixed. As four Watchdogs pursue, Ricky stumbles and falls. The older boy flees on, but Jen spins on her heel. She shoots back and yanks Ricky up, steel jaws crashing shut where he was.

            All over the yard, Watchdogs are activating.

            “They’ll kill them!” Sandra cries. “Do something, can’t you?”

            The older boy has run beyond the grounds, and Jen and Ricky race toward the edge. At that instant, the azure wall shimmers back on. Jackson slips his fingers away from the controls and stares at the screen. Ricky and Jen skid to a halt, and turn to face the Watchdogs closing in.

            Sandra moans.

            The children gape in all directions. Before they can make a fatal attempt to jump through the security wall, Jackson taps a button, and the shimmering blue vanishes. The children wheel, leap beyond the grounds, and flee.

            Splendid. Very exciting, and Sandra’s reaction leaves no doubt she is indeed Sandra. An android would lack the depth of emotion she showed, and no android would have struck him, shoved him, or shouted orders at him.

            He leans back and laughs till he cries. “Oh, Sandra,” he chortles, “that was too much, really! If only you could’ve seen your face. Oh God!” He wipes a tear away.

            “Do you mean,” she snarls, “that you engineered that whole little drama? Your security system was never down?”

            Still smiling, nodding, he leans back up. 

            Sandra slaps his face. “You idiot! Those children might’ve died!”

            Given the probable length of the brats’ lives, he fails to see how this matters, but keeps that to himself. “Sandra, they were never in any real danger.” He touches his stinging cheek. “I wasn’t going to let anything happen.”

            She rises. “I’m leaving.”

            Jackson rises too and clutches her arm. “No, please, Sandra, don’t go. I’m sorry.  Very, very sorry.”

            She’s almost sneering at him, lips quivering.

            “I have issues with trust.” He puts his hands on her shoulders and looks into her eyes. “When we were by the pool, I wondered if you’d tricked me, if you were really one of your ‘droids. I wanted to see if it was really you.”

            More softly she asks, “You are an idiot, aren’t you?”

            “Yes. I am. But I’ll never do anything like that again. Never. I promise. Please stay for dinner, at least.”

            She sighs. “I’ll stay for dinner.” She holds up her hand. “That’s all I’m agreeing to.”

            Dinner proves as sumptuous as he anticipated. After dessert, they sit some time in silence, gazing out at the sparkling pool and the roses, the lights low.

*****

            Later, Jackson, Sandra, and the androids dance to “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” in the rec room, under the dome. Here and there in the distance, some towering edifice like Jackson’s glows. Otherwise the city lays dark. Overhead, stars twinkle, and a crescent moon hangs just below its zenith. Wearing a motorcycle cap that he fetched from his memorabilia, Sandra seems to hold herself tense in his arms. After tonight, will he see her again? They dance away from the room’s edge, into the center of the dancers, and the memory of his earlier paranoia comes back to him. In spite of himself, he turns his head, to peek from the corner of his eye, wondering if perhaps one of the other Madonnas grins slyly at him. But in the dim light, each couple seems to float in its own private universe.

     “Up on the Roof” copyright 2009 by M-Brane SF

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About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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