“Sometimes you’ve just gotta do the right thing, y’know? Make a stand no matter how insignificant sticking to that one particular principal might seem.”

      “I’m sorry Mr Harlow, was that a request?” The spider crab-like bar bot polished the obsidian counter with one of its many arms while dismantling and rinsing a shaker with three of its others. Two of the remaining six were clasped beneath its steel and oak chin in a programmed approximation of concerned interest.

      “What’s that you say?” Harlow toyed with his chewed cocktail stick, dipping it in and out of the remaining pool of booze.

      “Sorry Mr Harlow, were you after another drink?”

      “Yeah, yeah Claude. Hit me again.”

      A tube immediately extended from the bottom of the bot’s thorax and began to probe the refrigerators set in the floor beneath it. It took all of about two seconds to locate Harlow’s particular brand of East European poison.

      “Look. You wanna know how it started?” the old journalist asked. “Hey, of course you do. You actually feature in this one Claude. Here.” Harlow pulled an old fashioned steel snap case out of his overcoat, clumsily unfolded his glasses and dabbed them upon his world-weary face. A second rummage turned up a palmtop and, after taking a moment to focus, he began to read aloud. Meanwhile Claude quickly checked the levels of drink in all the patrons’ glasses within view, and decided that he could remain with Harlow for another four minutes approximately.

      “If we shadows have offended,
      Think but this, and all is mended,
      That you have slumber’d here
      While these visions did appear.
      And this weak and idle theme,
      No more yielding but a dream…

      Puck delivered his closing speech, his AI carefully selecting a complimentary set of pauses and intonations from the Minithesp archive. It had been a gruelling tour but he, like the rest of his troupe, never flagged nor waned even now in the closing stages of the run. The same, unfortunately, couldn’t be said for the scant human technicians that sagged around the peripheries of the performance.

      For the final time the curtain dropped upon the dim lit stage and the other members of the mechanical cast hurried across the set to join their solitary companion. Then, with a hesitant bounce, the expanse of red velvet flew gracefully into the air, the lights flared and they took their calls to the distant sound of a torrential downpour. Rain falling possibly, or the hiss of an open data feed.

      The inch thick wall of plazi-plex muffled the thunderous applause from outside and protected the mico pick-ups from a critical level of audio input. The tiny actors stood, hands joined in a robotic chain across the stage and stared into the bank of lenses that relayed their concentrated actions. Farther away from this dwarfed cluster of technology sat the audience, now frantically displaying their appreciation towards the immense video screens suspended around the auditorium. And here, anonymous among the crowd, sat the Minithesp’s creator, her long fingered claps indistinguishable from the noise of those around her.

      Petra turned her striking face upwards and smiled, content that her miniatures had come so far since their humble beginnings as collectable automatons. For all she cared, the critical naysayers could go hang. Her actors were becoming stars in their own right. Not only did they offer directors a unique realisation of their artistic visions, they also cost a fraction of a full-scale performance. It was a shift in technical thinking that had outraged the traditionalists, but it had also fired the imaginations of many who would have never dared direct. None of that mattered right now, however.

      She always made an effort to attend as many opening and closing nights as she could, but it was more the excuse of the after show parties that kept her attendance levels up. It meant she didn’t have to be home until tomorrow, which also meant a chance to slip away for an evening tryst with Juan. Just the thought of him pushed all other concerns to one side, and she couldn’t wait to be free of her seat and away into the city.

      She deftly swept through the general hubbub of the milling audience and targeted the few key people who might possibly miss her. The excuses she used were never direct. She never said, “Sorry, I simply won’t be able to make it,” only hinted at fatigue, or the possibility of another engagement. Something plausible. Something safe.

      At the cloakroom she shrugged herself into her heavy green overcoat, requisitioned a nearby bottle of mineral water for the autocar, and headed out of the theatre into the damp night…

      Harlow paused, let out a barely audible sigh and peered at the bot over the top of his glasses. “Reads like shit, doesn’t it?”

      “Not at all Mr Harlow. I don’t believe that defecation has anything to do with the words you’ve just conveyed.”

      “Ha!” Harlow barked before taking another sip from his cocktail glass. “Anyway, that’s how it began. At least that’s how I imagined it began. You see Claude, the problem with a human interest story like this one is that – sometimes as a hack – you’ve got to use your imagination. And imagination doesn’t stand up too well in court. Look, you remember that night when I was sitting here and that guy dressed to the nines walked in?”

      The barbot held a shiny hand up in front of the old journalist and said, “Excuse me Mr Harlow,” before sliding down the bar to deal with another customer. Harlow, too drunk to care, simply raised his glass to the new arrival and pushed his voice to a further level of inclusion.

      “I was right here Claude, sitting on this very stool trying desperately not to get as drunk as I am now. When this guy pops through the door and immediately causes a one-eighty head turn. I mean he stuck out like a sore thumb. Everyone else in here was wearing the usual, uninspired re-runs of mixed military and sports – you know the style, where it looks like you’re about to jog to war or something… And when I say ‘everyone’, I mean to the exclusion of yours truly, of course…”

      “One minute Mr Harlow,” The bot fixed a round of drinks in record time and was back in front of Harlow in under the promised 60 seconds.

      “Well anyway into this den of iniquity our friend walks and, undeterred, heads towards a seat next to me at the bar. Now I’m personally no consumers idea of a fashion statement – this ‘ol faithful green checked suit will suffice for a few years yet. But this guy was way out there, a real frontiers-man when it came to dress sense. The kind of character you usually see loafing around the fashion desk with Jamanda Miramax. You ever read her column?” Harlow gave the bot’s aluminium and wood bodywork the once over, “No. Sorry. Of course you haven’t… Now, where was I?”

      “A real frontiers man you said, Mr Harlow. A cowboy maybe?” Claude ventured.

      “Yesssss. No! More, more of a flamenco dancer. Each item was heavily adorned from the pom-pom fringed fedora down to patent stacked dance heels. But black. All black. So, anyway, he kicks his flared slacks past the legs of the stool, and attempts to avoid catching his frilled sleeves in the bar’s dregs.” Harlow glanced apologetically at the bot, “Sorry, it was a busy night and there were dregs.”

      “Whatever you say Mr Harlow.”

      “Then he fixes me with a pair of cold, really pissed-off eyes and says, ‘Don’t ask’. But already my curiosity’s in overdrive and – despite him looking like an extra from one of those boom-cha-cha musicals of the twentieth century – I just couldn’t let an opportunity like this slip me by. So, steeling myself for retaliation and a quick escape, I say, ‘Rough day?’ And wincing he replies, ‘You don’t know the half of it pal.’ ‘Could I get you a drink?’ says I, and he places a colourful pair of maracas on the bar and turns purposefully towards me. ‘Look if you’re trying to pick me up I can tell you I’ve had just about all the flack I’m going to take for one day, and the last thing I need right now is…’ I quickly assured him that my intentions were nothing but honourable, and after some persuasion he finally accepts my offer. Which is where you come in to the story, Claude.” Harlow clapped his hands together in mock glee at a prophecy fulfilled.

      “Yeah, remember him now? Remember what he ordered to drink? He wanted to go for a beer, but then hesitated and ordered something outrageous like a mojito royal. Remember?”

      “If I tried, Mr Harlow, I probably would be able to. Would you like me to try?”

      “No, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you mix your drinks strong Claude and it didn’t take a lot to loosen him up. Three rounds at best, and little by little he began to impart the reasons why he had decided to come to this particular bar, and why he was dressed like a camp version of that ancient blade Zoro.

      “His name, it turned out, was Dagfin Follesdal, and his chosen profession was in fact that of traffic warden on the congested city up-ramps and not – as might be surmised by his dress – that of night-club prancer. Anyway, it transpired that about 12 years ago he’d had the good fortune to dole out a ticket to a certain high caste professional, who, taking an instant shine to our humble Dagfin, instigated a respectably lengthy courtship and finally decided to take him on as her lover/husband. I’m not losing you, am I?”

      “Not at all Mr Harlow.” Claude, quickly scanned the drinks situation while simultaneously placing a sat-linked reorder of Courvoisier with the brewery.

      “So, all was peachy keen in the Follesdal household for quite a few years. Their love and mutual respect stood as a yardstick for friends and family alike, and everyone they knew readily described them as the ‘perfectly flawed’ couple.

      “More years passed and their consistency began to stand almost as an emblem of… Of what? An idealised and somehow eternal union? Who knows. Anyway, it was about this point that Dagfin starts to get cold feet. ‘I can’t believe I’m telling you this,’ says he. ‘Hey, I’m the perfect listener,’ I reply. ‘Yeah?’ ‘Yeah, I’m a soci-drone programmer, it’s my job.’ Which was a direct lie, okay. But I wasn’t going to miss a trick with this one.”

      Harlow paused and looked guiltily into the impassive eyes of the barbot, then blew out his cheeks and pressed on.

      “It’s weird, now I come to think of it, but there I was looking down at my sorry shoes, waiting for the inevitable ‘but’ to come from young Dagfin, when this friendly roach appears beneath my stool and waves his antennae up at me. I mean, how do these little fellas survive against those advances in bug death?

      “So I waggle a finger back, feigning a general passing interest in Dagfin’s story while giving him the metaphorical extra length of rope. Then I venture, ‘All’s happy in the house of Follesdal then?’ ‘Not really,’ the boy says and suddenly the floodgates open. ‘It was… It was in bed, you know?’ I time my sagely nod perfectly, and he stumbles on. ‘Things had been… It was wonderful. Sex was wonderful. I’d slept with others, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t green when it came to… But with her…’ He shrugged, grunted and took another long pull from his drink. ‘Then things changed. She got really involved in what she was working on, and her job took up more and more of her time. I missed her and she’d come home exhausted… Sex is important, you know? And it became just something else to do. Nothing special. Took no time at all before that started to chaff. Anyway, things continued down this path and I began to look up old girlfriend’s numbers. Then she and I stopped talking, and… Well, then she gets this insane idea how to rescue everything. “We need to go back to square one,” she says one day. “Start afresh.” So the next thing I know I find myself in some crappy bar downtown, waiting for her to turn up, and I’m supposed to act like I’ve never seen her before, y’know? Like we’re strangers or something. And this works! This really starts to work, and everything’s fine again. I’m happy, she’s happy, we’re happy. Next thing, her work starts dropping off and she spends more time back at the apartment. Chance for things to get back to normal you’d think? But, oh no. She’s hooked to this ‘ships passing in the night’ stuff, and it gets weirder. She wants me to turn up ‘in role’, to take on some other persona. Make her the real queen bee of fantasy land. And that’s why I’m…’ By now I had a pretty good grasp on the situation. ‘So who are you tonight?’ To which poor Dagfin replies, ‘Juan, your Latino lover. Look I know it’s stereotypic and cheap, but it’s what she wants…’

      “So, Claude, imagine me there doing my best to suppress a smirk with this poor young fellow shooting quizzical looks at the contortions I’m putting my face through. ‘I’m sorry’ I say, ‘but… That’s quite a story.’ And then he looks me in the eye, and with a slight, ironic smile he says, ‘Isn’t it just.’

      “Then, over and above the muzak and the noise of conversation around us, we both somehow manage to hear the front doors hiss open and, turning as one, we see her standing there at the back of the bar. Dagfin begins to scramble to reclaim his maracas, ‘That’s her. Sorry, but I’ve really got to get it on, y’know? Look, thanks for the drinks.’ Then the penny finally drops, and I’m left agog staring like some kind of moron right into the face of a big, fat, juicy scoop. ‘You’re married to Petra Romer-Follesdal?!’ I say in disbelief as my brain reluctantly squeezes the names together. ‘Yeah… Yeah, I am.’ Then he freezes, just staring at her, ‘Isn’t she just the most beautiful…’ And with that he was gone.

      “Petra Romer-Follesdal no less. The gen-u-ine creator of the Minithesps. I’d kept tabs on all her exploits via the society screens and now here she was, in Murk’s bar, and I… I had just been digging the dirt on her sex life with her husband! Jumping Jahosaphat, what a story! I look up, hardly containing the urge to rush back to the flat to key it in, and there they are. The happy couple. He, shimmying and jiggling his way between the tables, maracas held high together, the audible clop-clop of his dance heels silencing the voices of all those around him. She, standing there – hardly recognisable in her headscarf and overcoat – playing her part just as well. The expectant lover – twinkles of excitement and guilt caught in the corners of her eyes but also a healthy dose of concern and confusion directed my way. Say what you like about Petra follesdal, she’s a sharp one.

      “Anyway, now comes the uncanny part because it seemed that, just for an instant, a ghostly choir of Carmen Mirandas joined the shadowy patrons of the bar. They undulated, almost a part of the smokey atmosphere itself, their fruit piled heads singing “La Cucaracha” in unison as Petra and Juan stepped out into the darkness. And do you know what Claude? I believe, to this day, that their song wasn’t a chorus of pre-coitus approval for the young lovers, but a cautionary tune for the ears of yours truly…” Harlow, put his hands on the edge of the bar and pushed himself as far away from the bot as he could without upsetting his stool.

      “Now, I know what you’re wondering my good fellow. Where did all of this leave me? I’ll tell you. Nursing my drink and watching you do your thing Claude while all the time my mind was going locomotive. Do you know I wrote the opening to that story about a dozen times, and I never could get any further than Petra leaving the theatre. And do you know why, my booze juggling metallic friend?”

      “I have absolutely no idea Mr Harlow.”

      “Because, sometimes you’ve just gotta do the right thing. Those kids, privileged as they were, had hit an impasse and had worked together to find a way around it. And that Claude, is a very rare thing in this day and age.”

      “So you never took the story to your editor.”

      “Nope and I never will. Probably the fear that the ‘Mirandas’ will come for me in the night, eh? Who cares, I’m just a jaded hack who was hungover in the training lecture about bootstrapping and brown nosing. It doesn’t matter.”

      “I’d have to disagree Mr Harlow. What you did was right and that’s the best that anyone can do.”

      “Hey Claude, I never heard you talk like this before. You’re not about to malfunction on me are you? I’m sure I need another drink.”

      “You never heard me talk like this, Mr Harlow, because you’ve never told me that story before. As for needing another drink, I think it might be better if you went home. But if you want to stay, I’ll keep serving you.”

      Harlow squinted suspiciously at the barbot and, in doing so, realised that another drink would probably render him unable to pull such a facial expression again. He sighed.
“You’re right Claude, absolutely right. It’s time to hit the road my boy.”

      The old journalist hauled himself up, and spent a good few minutes carefully retrieving his items from the bar. The last thing he put away was the palmtop and at this he paused, a resigned smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. Eventually the device also disappeared into his overcoat and then this, in turn, was draped casually over one arm. Pointing a farewell finger at the barbot Harlow slowly turned in place and set his feet to autopilot, their well-rehearsed motions carrying him from the bar with an unhurried dignity.

      So intent was he on not interfering with the other patrons, that he completely failed to see the blond woman sitting in the corner, her strong – although not unattractive – features under lit by the eerie glow of her portable computer. She did here best to ignore the older man as he exited, but then seemed to physically sag, to almost collapse in upon herself, the instant the door closed behind him.

      Petra slumped back from the screen and massaged around the uncomfortable bulk of the hidden earpiece. It was only then that she let the true enormity of her dejection creep in. She felt absolutely wretched.

      None of this had been part of the plan. All she’d intended to do was observe Harlow, to try and gauge whether he’d be receptive to some kind of gentle persuasion. If she could just buy enough time from him to ensure a clean publicity run for her new Minithesp range, then that would be enough. The press could drag her name through the mud for all she cared, but if scandal unduly affected her work, her staff… She simply couldn’t allow that to happen.

      Sticking a finger deep into the pile of her blond wig she scratched one of the insistent itches crawling across her scalp. Immediately a host of other irritations sent “me too” messages flooding through her nervous system, and she quickly gave up on the endeavour.

      She now faced the laborious task of erasing her interference with the barbot’s aural array, which meant an extended stay in Murk’s bar. No bad thing, really. If nothing else it would at least give her time to consider what to do about the remarkable Mr Harlow. His unshakeable faith in the resilience of love was… humbling. And the realisation that it was her love that caused this response in him made her realise just how lucky she was. She’d do something to help the old journalist. Perhaps give him the exclusive on the new range and a personal interview. The details remained vague, but she knew she’d come up with something. She always did.

      Placing her long, delicate fingers back on the keys, she began to retrace her steps through the layers of the operating system to the point of the hack. As she did so she suddenly became aware of a large metallic presence by her elbow, and looking up she found Claude standing next to her. Immediately she cowered and guiltily rotated the computer away from him, but then she realised he was merely there to clear glasses from a neighbouring table. His multiple arms made fast work of the patrons’ detritus and he whistled a reassuring tune as he stacked the empties into a slot on his back. It was an old song – a fast and happy little ditty that she recognised from her childhood, although try as she might she couldn’t recall its name.

      Claude swivelled somewhere mid thorax and brought his friendly, large-lensed eyes round to meet Petra’s.

      “Have you finished?” He said, a hand gesturing towards the almost empty, and too warm, glass of white wine.

      Petra considered the lipstick smudged beverage and looked back up at the barbot, “No, not quite,” she said, “Thank you all the same Claude.”

      The bot slightly inclined his body, tilted his head and said, “My pleasure.” Then he was off, moving dextrously between the tables leaving Petra with her computer and an odd little staccato melody, looping around and around inside her head.

— THE END —

(Copyright © 2006 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)