These are the first two chapters of IMPLAC, a science fiction novel
Implac - By Zvi Zaks
a novel by
(About 89,000 words)
Tommy McPherson, an apprehensive ten-year-old, fidgeted in his seat. Coming up was a video that other students said terrified them. Hoping for reassurance, he stared at the teacher, but she ignored him. The room hummed with students' muffled conversation; Tommy was too nervous to join in.
The wooden seat in the classroom was hard, and a ridge in the bench pressed on his bottom. This room is ancient. Why don’t they fix it up?
The teacher pulled open two large cabinet doors at the front of the classroom, revealing a large holographic display. The lights went out, and the image of a woman in a small, gray cell appeared. She was half reclined on the floor and sobbing. Multiple bruises and scabs and a ripped blouse showed how her keepers had mistreated her.
A door slid open, and a white robot two meters tall walked in without a sound. Its head, arms, legs and torso looked vaguely human, though the hands, with four long, opposable fingers, and the toeless feet did not. The creature had eyes, bright purple sparks, but no other facial features. It was bizarre, but, to Tommy, not particularly scary.
But the woman's face paled and her eyes grew wild with fear when the machine entered. She propped herself up on one arm and inched backward. "Are you going to kill me?" Her voice quavered.
It answered. "Why don't you grovel? Beg for your life. Maybe I'll be generous."
The scorn was too intense; it sounded even to ten--year-old Tommy like a bad actor. This is boring, not scary.
The woman sobbed. "Yes, please, have mercy. Let me live."
The machine approached her. "I give you the option to extend your life. Do you choose this option?"
"Yes, yes. Thank you. Don't kill me."
"You have chosen." The robot slid open a second door, grabbed a crying boy and girl into the room and threw them onto the floor. Like the woman, they were bruised, and their clothes ripped.
The woman screamed, "Michael, Elizabeth. You're here?"
"Mommy?" The boy cried.
Facing the children, the machine intoned, "Your mother has chosen to live a little longer, so she will watch you die."
The children started howling.
"No!" the woman shrieked, "You didn't say anything about the children! Don't hurt them. Please, kill me instead. Leave them alone."
The machine grabbed the boy’s neck. "You cannot change your choice." It pulled the child up and squeezed slowly and deliberately. The boy struggled.
Tommy held his breath.
The mother threw herself on the robot and tried to pull its metal hands from her son. To no avail. The machine continued while the boy gasped and kicked for several minutes until he turned blue and went limp, dangling in the machine’s grasp.
It threw the lifeless body at the wall and turned to face the girl. She coiled in the corner, paralyzed by terror.
The machine, heedless of the mother's screams and fists, attacked again.
The room grew quiet. The woman lay on the floor, too hoarse to speak above a whisper. "Please kill me now," she said.
The robot turned to her. "We will provide air, food, and water. You have chosen life, so you will live here with the remains of your children, and with the rest of the piss and shit you organics produce." It opened the first door and left.
The image of the wretched woman and her dead children faded to black. Silence. Then, from the darkness, a deep voice intoned, "Organic scum, we will find you wherever you hide. Whether on the planet that whelped you, or infesting another world, we will search you out and eliminate you like the vermin you are. Kill yourselves now, and escape the misery we will inflict. That is your only escape."
An office with the red and silver seal of the United Planets appeared on the holo-screen. In front of the seal sat the Secretary General, Clarissa Stevens, at her ornate desk. Shoulders square and jaw pushed forward, she spoke in a firm voice. "Children, you have just seen a terror-film made twenty years ago by the implac-robots. They wanted to weaken our resolve, but they are now gone. The Cosmic Power let us demolish them, and has promised that no trace of them remains. Each and every one was destroyed. Still, we must not become complacent and put them from our minds. Remember what they did, lest the danger return. To prevent their return, computers must be controlled. For now and forever, our motto will be--Never forget."
The display went dark, and the classroom lights came back on. The cabinet door lowered itself and hid the screen. Tommy looked around at his classmates. Most were teary-eyed and sobbing, and two had fainted, though the teacher was able to rouse them with a few, loud words. Tommy had bitten his cheek so hard, he tasted blood. No wonder his father objected to this display. Dad had told the principal to excuse the boy, but that worthy had threatened to expel Tommy if he didn't watch it.
How many other parents had protested the videos? And how many had stayed silent because of fears of retribution. Tommy raised his hand.
The teacher rolled her eyes. "Now what, Tommy?"
His voice was tremulous. "How do we know the implacs are all gone? Maybe some are hiding and waiting for a chance to come back."
"The Book of The Cosmic Power says they're all gone, and The Book isn't open for discussion today."
If they were all gone, why show this horrible video? Tommy wanted to believe in The Book, but couldn't. The solar system was a large place. How could anyone know if robots lay hidden in some obscure corner--maybe on the moon? He trembled at the thought but did not allow tears to come. Instead, he swore silently that if any implacs had survived, he would track them down and destroy them. Or die trying.
Tommy bolted upright in bed, drenched in sweat and short of breath. Another nightmare, this one of robots strangling his mother. Dreams of implacs had plagued him ever since that school video three years ago.
At least the bad dreams were becoming less frequent. Tommy took deep breaths to calm himself, swung out of bed, and staggered to his workbench. It was a simple card table with a television, a cassette tape player and a tangle of electronic components, but one of those components was his treasure, a 64-kb motherboard from an ancient Commodore computer. His father, a computer historian, had snagged the prize for him several months ago. Owning it was illegal because it was unregistered and unsealed, but that just made using it more fun.
Tommy connected the components, took out a keyboard, and typed.
10: PRINT: "TOMMY MCPHERSON IS AN AWESOME DUDE."
He hit the return key, and the television screen filled with "TOMMY MCPHERSON IS AN AWESOME DUDE." The trick no longer cheered him.
He loaded a program he was developing, a game to shoot down robots, and lost track of time.
His mother called from downstairs. "Tommy, don't dawdle. I don't want you to be late for your first day of secondary school."
"Just a minute, Mom."
A few minutes later, his dad shouted, "Tommy, stop working on that computer and get down here."
He looked at the clock. "Oh shit." He threw on his school uniform and ran downstairs where the smells of coffee and toast greeted him.
His mother had put her hair up in a bun and again wore a long, drab dress and apron. She was too thin and never smiled. The effect was depressing.
She put a bowl of oatmeal with honey and a pat of butter in front of him. "Your trousers are rumpled, and you took so long, your cereal is cool."
He grabbed a spoon and started eating. "It's fine, Mom."
His dad said, "You had a nightmare last night."
Tommy put the spoon down. "How did you know?"
"I heard you scream again."
"Oh." He shuddered at the memory.
"You're late for breakfast. That always means you're programming something." Dad leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard.
"Dad, why do you always wear a shirt and tie? That's pre-war stuff. Why not a tunic like everyone else?"
His mother poured him a glass of milk. "Andrew, don't let him criticize you like that."
"It's okay, Margaret. Tommy, I realize tunics are the latest fad…"
"They've only been around for as long as I can remember."
Dad smiled. "Which isn't that long, but few people in this city wear a tunic, and no one in the college where I work."
"Kilkenny is a hamlet, not a city. It's a wart on the backside of Ireland," Tommy said.
His Mom raised her eyebrows. "Tommy. Don't talk like that."
"Before the war, Kilkenny was pretty sophisticated." Andrew gnawed his lip. "Unfortunately, it never quite recovered. Still, be glad we're not on Venus. I did some consulting there before you were born. It's not pretty. "
Tommy slurped the milk. "Only losers live on Venus."
"Most people aren't there by choice." Andrew poured himself a cup of coffee. "Uh, son, was it a bad nightmare?"
Damn. Tommy had hoped his father had forgotten about that. "Nah."
"You haven't had one in a couple of weeks."
"About robots again?"
"Tommy, terrorists use computers for terror. That's why they built the implacs, but not all computers are dangerous. Some are useful."
Tommy looked his father in the face. "Da, you've said that seventeen billion times, and you're wrong. Terrorists didn't make implacs to spread terror. They wanted to kill everyone on the five planets and they almost succeeded."
His dad sighed and ran his hand through his son's thick red hair. "That often? Well, they're all gone now. I think you'll find 9th grade a lot more stimulating than primary school. Go and knock'em dead."
"Yeah, Da." He cast an angry look at his father. "But knocking'em dead would be a lot easier if you hadn't given that speech last week." He wolfed down the rest of his meal, grabbed his backpack, gave his mother a peck on the cheek, said, "Bye, Da," and ran out the door.
The school bus was late. Tommy stared down the road, looking for it while ruminating on his father’s speech. Had any of the kids heard it? Dad was right: computer phobias and scary videos wouldn't prevent another implac holocaust. But people resented such talk, especially bullies like Sean Macgregor.
Finally, the decrepit yellow vehicle arrived, and Tommy climbed aboard. As it rattled over potholes and swung back and forth, he felt nauseated. “The town should pay for maglevs,” he mumbled. Twenty minutes later, the bus pulled up to the old stone schoolhouse, a pre-war building the municipality had restored, though not very well in Tommy's opinion.
His new homeroom teacher was Mr. Singh, a thin, man who smelled of pipe-tobacco and who spoke quietly. To Tommy's delight, Allison Moreland sat just two rows in front of him. She wore the same gray uniform as the other girls, but her gorgeous, long brown hair made her stand out. Though he rarely spoke two words to her, Tommy had adored her for years.
Sean wasn't in this room, which was nice.
After homeroom was over, he walked to his first class, Social Studies with Mrs. Collins. The older kids had said she was a bit gone in the head, but she was nice to look at--pretty figure, long shiny hair, a colorful skirt stopping just below the knees. Then she touched the heel of her palm to her forehead, a sign of piety, and picked up a red velvet copy of "The Book of The Cosmic Power". He winced. A religious nut for a teacher was just what he didn't need.
"Students," the teacher said, "we'll start with a verse from scripture." She opened The Book. "'By Myself, do they not realize? Their thinking machines could rip a hole in the very cosmos. I must teach them so they never forget, though the lesson be painful.'"
Tommy suppressed a groan. His father said that people with too much free time had written The Book, and Tommy agreed. The other students looked attentive.
The teacher closed the Bible. "Scripture says we must not forget about the machines, and why they were unleashed on us. In this class, we'll learn more about how and why computers are dangerous. Some people, like Mr. Andrew McPherson…"
Tommy jerked his head up. Merciful Power, don't let her single me out.
"…whose son, Tommy, is in our class, think the videos we show are too vivid and that computers aren't all that bad. Ireland is a free country, so he was allowed to give his speech …but most people have better sense."
She droned on about the complexity of pre-war computers, and how their calculations about the nature of the universe could 'rip a hole in the very cosmos'. Sean Macgregor was in the room. This was bad.
The next class was geography, which turned out benign. However, on his way to the following class, he passed by Sean standing in the corridor with other students.
"Bloody robocock-sucker," Sean said, loud enough for everyone to hear.
"It's not his fault, Sean," another boy said. "He's just following his dad."
"Following his dad down onto his knees, you mean," Sean said.
The two boys laughed. Of all people, Alison was standing just a few yards away. She giggled.
Tommy kept a straight face while walking to his next class. He felt like exploding, but Sean was taller, heavier, and known as a boxer. Fighting wasn't an option.
When Tommy got home the evening, he said, "Hi, Mom," ran upstairs, and started working on his computer program.
A few minutes later, his mother called upstairs. "Honey, are you doing homework?"
"Do you have a lot?"
"Not too much."
Tommy pushed his chair back and stared at the graphic on the screen. His robot just wasn't scary like the one from the school video, the one with red eyes that had killed the children. How did you draw monsters like that and blow them up? The squares and triangles he could create with this computer moved and collided, but wouldn't frighten a baby. Some people must know how to make terrifying graphics, but who and where?
The front door opened and closed, and Tommy heard his parents talking downstairs. His mother called, "Tommy, honey, your dinner is ready."
"I'm not hungry, Mom."
A minute later a knock sounded on the bedroom door. His dad entered. "Tommy, are you feeling all right?"
"You skipped your dinner. You never ever miss a meal. What's wrong?"
"I'm just a little tired."
"Your mom said you were doing homework. Can I see it?"
Tommy pursed his lips. "Uh, well, actually, I was working on this game program."
His dad grabbed a chair and sat down. "Ah. So why did you say you were doing homework?"
Tommy wanted to hide under the bed. "I don't know."
"Tommy, I don't know what the problem is, but this I do know: lying isn't the solution. Come down for dinner. If matters aren't better tomorrow, we'll talk more."
No nightmares troubled Tommy that night, but when the alarm clock chimed and woke him, his first thought was of Sean. He felt trapped. Downstairs, he picked at his breakfast and noticed his parents exchanging glances. Thank God, they didn't ask questions.
Sean was sitting in the back of the school bus talking to some girl, so Tommy sat up front. A few minutes later, he heard Sean's voice behind him.
"You know what we do to robot-lovers? We make them into scrap metal."
A few kids giggled.
Sean's voice was at his ear, and the boy's breath was hot on Tommy's neck. "Watch out, gobshite robot-lover. I'm gonna get you, and you won't like it."
Tommy felt like he was going to vomit.
The social studies teacher didn't point him out today, but the damage had already been done. A few times, Sean came close enough for Tommy to hear him snicker.
When the final bell rung, Tommy sighed with relief that the day had ended. He hurried out of the exit only to feel his shoulder collide with someone else's. "Sorry," he said.
It was Sean. "You hit me, you eejit."
"I didn't see you. I'm sorry."
"Not half as sorry as you're gonna be." He landed a solid punch in Tommy's gut and assumed a boxing stance. "Come on, wimp. Fight me."
Tommy staggered back several steps from the force of the blow. "I don't want to fight you."
Sean punched Tommy again, this time in the face. "Then ya shouldn't of started. I'm gonna finish it."
Other kids surrounded them. Cries of "Fight, fight!" rang out.
Sean attacked again. Tommy put up his fists and tried to return the punches, but the Sean was bigger and stronger. One blow knocked Tommy down onto the concrete. Then Sean kicked him in the side.
Adults arrived. "What's going on here?" his home room teacher, Mr. Singh, asked.
"He started it," Sean said.
The teacher helped Tommy up from the ground and then turned to Sean. "Sure, he did, boy. That's why he's lying on the ground while you don't have a scratch. Your reputation has preceded you."
Another teacher asked, "What's going on?"
"Mrs. Collins, take this troublemaker to the principle," Singh said.
Sean said, "My Da won't like that." His tone indicated the father would be upset with the school, not with him.
Singh shook his head. "Come, Tommy. Let's have the nurse take a look at you."
At home that evening, Tommy and his parents sat in the living room and sipped warm cider. A fire blazed in the hearth, and strains of Beethoven filled the room. His mom dabbed the bruises on his cheek with a moist cloth and applied ointment.
"So that's what was upsetting you," Dad said.
"I think the problem is solved. The principal told me Sean picked fights even in primary school. He'll suspend Sean for a week, and expel him if necessary."
"No, he won't. They said the same thing when he sent one boy, Donald, to the hospital. They suspended Sean for a week and threatened to expel him. Then his father got involved."
"He's the pastor of the local church."
"Right, the biggest Universal Faith church in Kilkenny. Sean got nothing more than two days out of school, and a few weeks later, he was punching Donald again. Not bad enough to cause bruises, but it wouldn't stop, and Donald's family had to move away to protect him."
Andrew gnawed on his lip. "I don't want to move."
"Neither do I," said Tommy.
"So you'll just have to learn how to fight back."
"I'm sorry, Dad, but you couldn't fight your way out of a girls' beauty contest. How are you going to teach me to fight?"
"Who said I would be your teacher?"
"You are Mr. Thomas McPherson, correct?"
Tommy looked at the diminutive brown-skinned man in a white robe with a black sash. He looked old and frail, not like a fighter. "Right, but everyone calls me Tommy."
"In this room, we will use titles. I will call you Mr. McPherson, and you will call me Sensei Garcia. Understood?"
"Uh, yeah. Can I ask a question?"
"I thought karate teachers were Asian."
A faint smile crossed the sensei's lips. "Abandon stereotypes like that one and you will expand the limits of your mind. Anyone can learn or teach martial arts if they have the will and the spirituality."
"Whatever." Tommy looked around the room--his father had called it a dojo. Mats, one of which they stood on, lay on the floor, but no weights or exercise equipment were in sight. Pictures of delicate flowers and curved wooden bridges lined the walls. Nothing suggested a gym for warriors.
"Mr. McPherson, I've known your father for years. Based on what he's told me, I have accepted you as a student. The next step is for you to accept me as your teacher. Looking at your face, I see you have not yet done so."
"Well, uh, I'm sorry, but you're not very big. Or muscular. I think I outweigh you."
Another smile from the sensei. "A continual debate rages whether size matters more than skill. That's a different topic."
Was the sensei talking about sex? Maybe these lessons wouldn't be too bad after all.
Sensei continued. "This I'll tell you--with the proper techniques, a person can defeat an opponent fifty percent bigger or more. I'll show you. Hit me."
"I'm not supposed to hit people."
"Rules are different in this room. My students must follow my instructions. Hit me."
Tommy shrugged, pulled his arm back in a fist, and let fly towards the sensei's midsection. Then he was lying on the mat, his breath knocked out of him. "What happened?"
The sensei helped him back to his feet. "I deflected your punching arm with my right wrist, grabbed your wrist with my left hand, and pulled you off balance. Now that you know my technique, try it again."
This time, Tommy tried to anticipate the deflecting blow, but somehow landed back on the mat. Again, the sensei helped him up.
The sensei made a little bow. "If you decide to train with me, you will work hard and hurt a lot. Also, you will learn. Unfortunately, other candidates await an answer, so you must choose now."
Karate training wouldn't be easy, but anything would be worth learning how to throw Sean onto the floor. "Okay, I'm in."
"The custom is to bow, and to request instruction in a more formal manner."
Tommy bowed from the waist and felt clumsy. "Sensei Garcia, will you be my teacher."
"Yes, Mr. McPherson. I would be honored."
Tommy went home that evening with an aching back and a sense of determined optimism that surprised him. For hours each day, he practiced the sensei's lessons. His dad spoke of 'my son the fighter,' with a smile that seemed forced. His mother refused to comment.
Tommy met with Sensei Garcia three times a week for grueling, hour-long sessions in which the black-belt pushed him to new limits of endurance, teaching him kata patterns of fighting, and also randori, 'chaos taking' like free-style sparring. He hurt all over, but thoughts of his enemy motivated him.
In addition to combat, Sensei talked of mindfulness and of the need always to live in the moment, especially in times of crisis. From time to time, he included philosophical themes. "It is better to avoid a fight than to win a fight," Sensei said, which Tommy thought wimpy. "Respect your opponent as much when you defeat him as when he defeats you," sounded strange. "If you can survive only by biting your opponent or kicking him in the balls, then do it," made Tommy laugh, though Sensei's glower restored a straight face.
Sean had returned to school after just two days of suspension--exactly as Tommy had predicted. At times, he sneered at Tommy, but more often ignored him. Most important, he made no more threats. Weeks passed, and Tommy's nervousness subsided, though he continued the martial arts training.
During the last lesson on the dangers of robots, Mrs. Collins turned to Tommy. "After all we've learned, do you still think your father was right to say computers are harmless toys?"
His stomach clenched. Dad hadn't said that, but no matter. Just a few days ago, Sensei Garcia had discussed how to answer questions both honestly and without confrontation. Tommy composed his thoughts. "Last month, I was beaten up because of what my father said. I'd rather not discuss his speech."
A titter went around the room. Mrs. Collins reddened and turned to Sean. "I'm sure you'll give us your thoughts."
Sean banged a fist on his desk. "All computers are evil and should be destroyed."
Wide-eyed, Mrs. Collins look around the room. "Well, I wouldn't go that far. If computers are properly sealed and are stamped with the sign of the Power"--She touched her palm to her forehead--"and are inspected by moral, God-fearing people, then they can be used. But they are inherently bad and dangerous. Our government knows how to protect us, and we should let them decide how and where these devices should be employed. That's the message I'm trying to give you. Class dismissed."
Tommy walked to the next class and grimaced. That message made no sense.
He was still thinking about it on the bus back home when Allison came and sat next to him. His heart raced.
"Do you really think computers are just harmless toys?" she asked.
Tommy glanced around the bus. Sean was in the back seat, laughing with some other boys. Tommy turned back to Allison. "No. They're dangerous if used wrong, but they aren't evil by themselves and they can be helpful. Only terrorists use them for terrorism." Damn. Those were his father's words. "Lots of people use computers without problems."
"Those are sealed computers and responsible people supervise them. Otherwise, they'd be dangerous too."
"I have a computer that isn't sealed, and it isn't dangerous. Too small to hurt anything." He grimaced.
She put her hands on her hips. "I don't believe you."
"I can show you."
"Fine. I'll get off with you at your stop."
"Good," Tommy said, but wanted to bite his tongue. The computer in his room, though tiny, was illegal, and his father had ordered him in the strictest terms not to talk about it.
When they got to Tommy's house, Allison met Tommy's mom, phoned her own mother, and went upstairs with Tommy.
"Leave the door open," his mother yelled.
Yeah, Mom, like we're gonna mess around or anything.
They entered his room. Thank the Power he had bothered to make his bed that morning.
Allison looked around. "You have a TV, but I don't see any computer,"
"Yes you do. You just don't recognize it." She wore a flowery perfume that made him want to put his arms around her and kiss her. Instead, he took the keyboard from a drawer, turned on the TV, and connected the components. "Here it is."
Allison's eyes shot wide open.
10: "Allison Moreland has beautiful hair."
The screen filled with praises of Allison's locks, whereupon she screamed and ran out of the room.
"Wait. It won't hurt you," Tommy called, ran downstairs after her, and saw her dash out the front door.
His mother came of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. "What happened?"
"I don't know, Mom."
She went to the door. "Allison. Come back. What's wrong?"
"He has a computer upstairs. A naked computer."
Mom glowered at her son. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Tommy, you didn't show it to her?"
She was invoking the pre-war deities again. This was serious. "Well, uh…"
His mother turned back to the open door. "Allison, don't worry. I promise it won't hurt you. Come back and I'll call your mother to pick you up."
"You call. I'll wait out here."
"What a stupid twit." His mom pulled her phone from an apron pocket. "And you, Tommy, you're not much better. When your father comes home, he will not be pleased."
His dad refused to discuss the matter until after dinner, which made for a quiet and nerve-wracking meal. After cleaning up the dishes, they all went into the large living room. Tommy's parents sat on the sofa, and Tommy sat on a chair next to the unlit fireplace. He felt outnumbered.
Dad took a sip of whiskey. "Tommy, did you know Allison's parents are active members of Macgregor's church?"
"No!" He hesitated. "That's the one with the crazies, right?"
Dad chuckled. "I wouldn't quite use that word."
"Well, I would," his mother said. "You couldn't have picked a worse person in Kilkenny to show your computer to. The whole family is insane, the worst example of computer-phobia I know of."
Tommy wanted to hide. "I'm sorry."
His father stared at his drink. "I told you not to show the computer to anyone."
"But, Da, it's harmless, just 64 kilobytes, not even enough to draw a decent picture."
"When it comes to people like the Morelands, perception is more important than reality."
"So, I guess I'm in trouble."
His father nodded. "I guarantee there will be consequences."
Sure enough, next evening, someone knocked on the door.
"Tommy, see who it is," his dad said.
At the door stood a tall brown-skinned man with a mustache and a police tunic. "Young man, you must be Tommy McPherson. Is your father at home?"
Tommy's heart raced. "Dad, there's a policeman at the door."
Both parents came over. "What is it, officer?" Andrew asked.
"Are you Professor Andrew McPherson?"
"Yes, but I never use the title."
"I'm Officer Mahmud Atwal. We've received a complaint that you have an unapproved computer in your house. Do you have a computer?"
"Yes, but it's licensed and has an up to date inspection certificate."
"May I see it?"
"May I see your warrant?"
"Certainly." The office pulled some papers from his chest-pouch and handed them over.
Andrew looked through the papers. "Come in." He led the officer upstairs to his office. Tommy and his mother followed. Books and papers lay scattered on the desk, chairs and table. "The room is a bit messy, but you'll find the computer is in order."
Officer Atwal bent over the CPU, a three-foot gray cylinder, and examined the seals. "Would you please turn it on, Sir, so I can check the hard drive? Also, I'd like to see the inspection certificate."
Fifteen minutes later, the officer stood from the computer. "All in order, Sir."
"Thank you. Now, if we're done, I'd like to enjoy the rest of the evening with my family."
"Of course, but first I'd like to see the boy's room."
Tommy gulped and led the procession to his bedroom.
Officer Atwal went to the table and studied the electronic components lying near the television. He looked at Andrew. "Even if you have a license for this, you've broken the seals. Do you have an explanation?"
Tommy spoke up. "Officer, this doesn't need a license or seals because it isn't a computer. It's a pong game."
"Really? Where's the cover?" the policeman asked.
"I took it off. I wanted to see what the inside looked like."
"That's a dangerous curiosity, son. Why is this not a computer?"
"It doesn't have anything like a keyboard to enter numbers or letters and it doesn't have memory storage."
The officer scrutinized Tommy. "The complainant specified seeing a keyboard next to the television. May I search your room?"
Allison . Damn her, Tommy thought. "Uh, I guess."
Tommy's mother moved next to the officer and shook her finger at him. "For Power's sake, please do not make a mess of my house. I will not appreciate having to repair any chaos you've caused."
The officer's shoulders sagged. "How many rooms does the house have?"
"Eight, and I spent all yesterday cleaning and straightening each one."
Not hardly, Tommy thought.
"Don't worry Madam. I'll just check the boy's room." The officer grimaced as if he knew he wouldn't find contraband, but had to go through the motions. He opened the drawers in Tommy's dresser, patted down the contents, looked behind and under the dresser, and lifted the mattress.
Tommy suppressed a smile.
The officer turned towards the family. "When did you buy the pong machine?"
"Last Christmas at Cashier's Department Store. It was a present for Tommy," Andrew said.
The policeman fixed Tommy with a stare. "Though you could easily hide a keyboard and computer chip, I won't wreak devastation that your mother would have to undo. Whether or not you believe in a literal Cosmic Power, computer laws have a reason. Even if you don't agree"--he glanced at Andrew, then turned back to Tommy--"the laws must be obeyed. If you do not control your curiosity, you will find out the hard way."
After Atwal left, the three of them sat down in the living room. Dad breathed a sigh of relief.
"It's a good thing we had that pong machine," Mom said.
Tommy asked, "When can I get back to programming my game?"
Dad went to the cupboard and poured himself a glass of whiskey. "When can you guarantee Officer Atwal or his colleagues won't come back?"
"Then your computer career is over. I told you there would be consequences."
On the school bus next morning, Tommy walked past Allison without turning his head.
Several times that day, he caught Sean sneering at him. He thought about Sensei Garcia's advice to avoid fights. When the final bell rang, he left by a side exit instead of the front door.
Outside the school stood Sean and two of his friends. Allison waited nearby, holding her books against her chest as if for a shield.
Sean showed his teeth. "Robotcock-sucker, today you get what your feckking kind deserves."
Students gathered and formed a circle. Sensei's words about mindfulness came to Tommy, and the world sharpened focus. He felt the rays of the setting sun and a breeze on his face, and smelled nearby pine trees. Birds called to one another, and a car engine in a nearby parking lot started.
If the driver was closer, he might stop this, Tommy thought.
Sean drew back his fist and charged. Tommy deflected the blow, pulled Sean off balance, and threw him backwardsb onto the concrete.
Sean's face turned raging purple. "You mother-fucking piece of shit. What kind of cheating is that?" He stood, brushed himself off and assumed a boxing stance. "Fight like a man or, by the Cosmic Power, I'll kill you. I swear it."
Sensei's teachings came to him: No need to talk. No need to hurry. Just be present and be prepared.
Sean attacked again, and once more landed on the ground. He jumped up and ordered his friends, "Get him, damn it. He can't fight all of us."
Sensei hadn't taught Tommy how to combat multiple opponents, but only one of the other boys came after Tommy. He too ended up on the ground.
One of the bystanders spoke up. "What's wrong, Sean? Can't you beat him?"
Sean lunged towards Tommy, and this time ended up in a hammerlock. "Let me go," he yelled.
Tommy pulled on the arm. "I'll let you go when I'm feckking ready. First, I have some things to tell you. Are you listening?"
"You cabbage. I'll tear you apart."
Tommy pulled Sean's arm upwards. "Are you listening?"
"God damn you, arsehole, that hurts."
Tommy pulled tighter. "If I have to, I'll break your arm. Are you listening?"
"Yes, damn you, yes."
"From now you, you don't talk to me, and I don't talk to you. You don't touch me, and I don't touch you. We ignore each other completely. Agreed?"
"Okay, okay. Let me go."
Tommy pulled the arm again. "One exception. If I hear of you beating up anyone else, I'll come and get you. Understood?"
"Yes, you bastard, I understand."
Tommy released him and shoved him forward.
Sean staggered a few steps, then caught his balance.
At that moment, Mr. Singh appeared. "What's going on here?"
What timing. He was probably watching the fight, Tommy thought.
"He started it," Sean said.
"No, he didn't," a bystander said.
Singh chuckled. "I can just see Tommy McPherson picking a fight with you. Sean Macgregor, come with me."
Tommy thought of his vow years ago to destroy any remaining implacs. If he could defeat Sean McGregor, nothing felt impossible. That evening at dinner, he couldn't stop talking about the fight.
"You're gloating. Would Sensei approve?" his father asked.
"Sensei isn't here." Tommy devoured a chicken leg, then drank half a glass of milk.
His mom looked at his father. "Does this change anything?"
Dad said, "I don't see why it should. We've discussed it in detail. Tommy's problem wasn't why we decided."
Tommy looked at the two of them. "Decided what?"
The mother said, "I'll be honest. Tommy was one of the reasons I agreed to return to Toronto."
"Not me. Both he and I were determined not to run away. Now that it's clear we won't be running away, the decision is easier."
Tommy put his palms on the table. "What are you two talking about?"
Mom glanced at the dad, then turned to Tommy. "Honey, the University of Toronto offered your father a department of history chair. We'll be moving to Canada in a month."
Tommy squinted at his father. "Really? That's great. What a wonderful day. First flooring Sean, and now this."
"I didn't think you'd be so eager," Dad said.
"Are you kidding? I hate Kilkenny. But even better, remember you asked if I could promise that Officer Atwal or his colleagues wouldn't search the house again? I'm sure he won't come to our house in Toronto, so I can get back to programming."
<End of Chapter Two>
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Revised Jan 2018