Life is what we make it

by Milo James Fowler

The coffee was as terrible as ever at Bob’s corner diner, but the service was starting to improve.

“Must be that deal if they screw up your order.” Sam Blake grimaced as he set down his cup.

“What?” Across from him in the booth, Jim Farsight tapped an index finger against his holo-messenger.

“You know: they get it wrong, you get it free.” Sam belched into his napkin and pushed himself back from the table. “The threat of losing credits, maybe.” He cocked his head, listened for a moment. “You hear that?”

Jim glanced up at the ceiling, index finger hovering. He frowned. “I don’t hear anything.”

Sam grinned. “Exactly. No crashing plates, no silverware dancing across the floor. No bitching from Bob, no bitching from the help. Everything is so efficient.” Sam nodded. “Like a whole different place now.”

Farsight shook his head, eyes trained on the image in his hand. “It’s the new waitress.”

“What?”

“The tall brunette.”

“The new one?”

“That’s what I said.” His finger tapped the holo-image, closing two applications. He pocketed the messenger and looked at Sam for the first time since they’d sat down together. “She’s a GEL.”

Sam’s eyes widened. He glanced over his shoulder, but she was already out of sight. He leaned in. “How do you know?” he whispered.

Farsight shrugged. “It was in the local Express. You didn’t read it?”

“I don’t look at that electronic crap. I like the old black, white, and read all over.”

“You’re going to wake up one morning obsolete.”

Sam licked his lips. “But how could Bob afford it? They don’t come cheap, those things.”

“How could he afford not to get one? You said it yourself, this place is far more efficient now.” Farsight waved his hand across the scanner in the center of the table. A flicker of red light crossed his skin, and the word PAID appeared on the screen. “She’ll pay for herself in the long run. Hell, maybe she’ll even show Bob how to make a decent cup of coffee.” He winced after a final swig of the sludge.

Sam scratched at his clean-shaven scalp. “How much does a GEL waitress go for, do you think?”

Farsight got to his feet and stretched, stifling a yawn. “Five million, maybe. Less than a Lover or Security model. Not as sophisticated. All she’s got to do is get everybody’s order straight and act friendly enough.” He pulled on his overcoat and reached for his hat. “Ready?”

Sam nodded, glancing over his shoulder again as he got up. The brunette was nowhere in sight. Grabbing his chrome briefcase, he followed Farsight to the glass double doors.

“HALT!” Red lights flashed along the perimeter of the ceiling. “PATRON 36 DID NOT PAY HIS BILL.”

The color drained from Sam’s face as he looked back at his seat number. “That’s me—”

Farsight pushed past him, striding back to their table. He glanced up at the surveillance vidcam as he waved his hand across the scanner.

“There. Happy now?”

PAID flashed across the screen.

“THANK YOU.” The red lights dimmed out.

“I owe you one,” Sam breathed as Farsight joined him.

“Don’t mention it.” He pushed open the door and ushered Sam outside. “Let’s go. She’s watching us.”

“Who?”

“The GEL.”

#

“Life is what we make it,” Arthur Solomon mused, reading the motto chiseled in Roman lettering on the granite facade of the massive GELCorp building, located right in the middle of the city’s corporate nexus. The retinal scanner flashed into his left eye, and he strained not to blink.

“IDENTITY CONFIRMED,” droned the computer as the set of steel doors slid aside with a rush of cool, purified air.

“Good morning, Dr. Solomon,” the GEL Security guard welcomed with a bright smile. “Dr. Wilson is expecting you on Level Three.”

“Right.” Solomon glanced back as the doors locked him inside. He cleared his throat but could think of nothing to say. He avoided looking at the guard. “Right.” He nodded and moved toward the elevator across the hall, the tail of his coat flailing behind him.

“Have a great day.” The guard watched him jab at the UP arrow twice, then again, staring above the doors. “It’s on its way down.” He watched him punch the arrow a few more times for good measure. “Any second now, Dr. Solomon.”

The doors slid open. Solomon stepped inside and hit the CLOSE DOORS pad. He breathed a curse as the lift propelled him upward.

Dr. Sharon Wilson was waiting for him in the maturation lab. She stood on the observation deck speaking with an assistant concerning a specimen in the chamber before them. Solomon could make out something about “adjustments” and “the buyer’s wishes.” He caught her eye, and she beckoned to him.

“You can finish the final series of calibrations.” She dismissed her assistant and turned toward Solomon. “I trust you had an enjoyable holiday, Arthur?”

He stepped from the lift onto the deck. “Yes.” He attempted a smile. “Well worth the wait.”

“Our client will undoubtedly say the same.” She gestured to the GEL behind the glass. “Lover model—Type 4.”

Solomon followed her gaze. The GEL held upright in the incubation chamber faced them from behind the clear hatch. It was a male, its maturation nearly complete, its body unblemished. No Natural human ever had, nor ever would, look like this: perfect in every way.

“Like a god,” Solomon heard the words escape him.

Dr. Wilson raised an eyebrow.

“Lifespan?”

She shrugged. “Ten years, give or take. At which time it will have to be replaced.”

“Guaranteed repeat clientele.”

She almost frowned. “At the end of its lifespan, we’ll pick it up and offer the client a discount on the new model—a Type 8 by then, if we keep progressing at this rate.”

Solomon could feel his stomach turn over. He stepped back.

“Why bring me in? You seem to have everything in order.” His gaze wandered to the assistant below working on two computers with one hand at each holo-screen, running multiple programs at the same time.

“Just needed your say-so. You are the boss around here, you know.” She smiled, but it didn’t last. She crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. “Anything wrong, Arthur?”

He swallowed. “Could we—” He ran a hand through his thick, grizzled hair. “Could we talk?” He avoided her gaze.

There were words fighting for release; she could see it in his eyes. “Sure.” She called down to her assistant, “Monitor the vitals when you finish, Robert. This one’s about ready to go.”

Robert looked up, his hands flying across the screens. “Yes, Dr. Wilson.”

“My office,” she gestured to the recessed doorway at the end of the observation deck.

“He’s one of them, isn’t he,” Solomon said.

“What?”

Robert. He’s a GEL.”

She half-smiled. “Of course. I couldn’t have a Natural working on this project. Too many variables.” She stepped into her office as the door slid aside. “Something to drink?”

“It’s getting so I can’t tell the difference anymore,” he muttered. “Some tea would be fine. Thanks, Sharon.” He lowered himself into an easy chair by her desk and let out a weary sigh.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were overworked, Arthur. Tired. But you were just on holiday, weren’t you?”

“Yes—the South Pacific. Paradise.” He shook his head and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “It’s not that. It’s coming back to—” He didn’t know how else to say it. “This.”

“The re-entry.” She gave him a knowing smile.

The tea-maker bleeped.

He looked away, down at his hands as she turned to retrieve the two cups of steaming brew. She handed one to him and seated herself on the edge of her desk.

“Tell me about it.” Her look was direct.

He kept his eyes on the mug cupped in his hands. He shook his head. “Do you know how old these hands are? They don’t look it, but have you any idea?”

“If you’re asking me to guess your age—”

“My grandfather died of heart disease. A hereditary genetic defect. He didn’t stand a chance. He was a Natural in the purest sense of the word. He was my age.” He looked up, meeting her gaze.

She frowned, biting her lip. “I don’t understand.”

“How is it natural to live like this? Creating gods in our own image—and limiting their lifespan to ensure our profit margin. It’s so unnatural!” He blew out a sigh, deflating. “Don’t listen to me. I don’t know what I’m saying.”

She chose her words with care. “You’re our founder, Arthur. You’re a genius—” She ignored the petulant wave of his hand. “GELCorp wouldn’t even exist today if it wasn’t for you.”

“And would that be such a bad thing?” He stared into her eyes. “What are we doing here? Really, when you come right down to it?”

“We’re improving the quality of life for hundreds of citizens—”

“By creating sex slaves?”

She blinked. “That isn’t fair. Our GELs work in all levels of society. They’re security personnel, waiters, factory workers, doctors, teachers—”

“I’ve seen the commercial,” he muttered, dropping his gaze.

She watched him. “You do seem depressed. Maybe you should go up to Level Five and have them run a scan. Negative energy can really alter your outlook on life, you know.”

“Negative energy,” he mused.

She nodded. “Trust me, Arthur.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Sometimes, we can be our own worst enemies.”

#

Sam Blake pulled at his coat and stuffed his hands into the pockets as he joined the throngs making their way home. The subway would be more crowded than the sidewalks, and he relished the fresh air as long he could. He looked up at the sky and noted the heavy cumulus clouds rolling in from the west. Good thing he remembered his hat. It would be another three blocks until the subway, and the air already smelled damp.

He stepped onto the heel of the woman in front of him.

“Oh-sorry—”

She turned to look at him. “It was not your fault.”

“What?”

The man beside her said, “Mistakes happen.”

Sam looked at them both, and they returned his gaze as the moving sidewalk carried them along. “I just—wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“It will rain soon,” the woman said.

Sam looked at her upturned face. Her skin was flawless. He couldn’t think of another word for it. Her profile reminded him of an ancient Greek statue, a goddess.

“It rains this time of year,” the man said. He too regarded the clouds with his full attention. He had a strong, rugged jawline and tan skin. His blue eyes twinkled.

Sam swallowed. He knew what they were.

He felt a little uneasy being this close. It was like standing next to a Rolls Royce; he was afraid of scratching them by accident. They must belong to someone nearby, he reasoned. He tried to look around nonchalantly, darting glances here and there. A portly man was tapping at his messenger; a plain-faced woman was massaging her temple and grimacing; a young pimply fellow was yawning. None of them looked like millionaires. Sam couldn’t get a good look at anyone else in the crush of bodies without drawing attention to himself.

He looked at the goddess.

“On your way home?” he asked.

She looked him in the eye. “Yes.”

He swallowed again under her direct gaze. “Are you a Lover model?” he wanted to ask, but he knew that would be out of line. It was the only possibility, though. Every other GEL model in the city would be taking over the jobs of Naturals going home for the day. The Lover models, on the other hand—they always went home with their Natural owners.

Sam had never met the GEL who took his second shift at the office. He’d often wondered what he was like, but the management didn’t allow Natural and GEL employees to intermingle. They told Sam, when he pursued the topic, just to be glad he worked only until noon every day.

“Your grandfather would have killed for those hours!” they said.

Sam realized the goddess was still looking at him, and he was still staring back.

“You live in the city?” he blurted out, half of his brain wondering what she was thinking.

“No. I live in a small neighborhood just outside.”

“Yeah? Me too.” Dead air followed.

“As do I,” said the broad-shouldered male.

Sam glanced at him, noting his physique. He probably delivered above and beyond whatever his buyer had paid.

“Do you two live together?” Sam trailed off.

“No,” she said, her eyes still on Sam.

“I am going home for the first time today,” said the male.

“WATCH YOUR STEP,” barked the recorded voice as the sidewalk ended, leading to an escalator that would take the commuters deep beneath the street. “WATCH YOUR STEP.”

Three sidewalks converged on the subway tunnel, and in the added press of bodies, Sam lost sight of the two GELs.

He doubted that anyone in his small circle of friends had ever talked to one as long as he had—let alone two of them. And Lover models, no less. I’ve gotta tell Farsight! He wondered what it would be like to take that goddess home . . .

Then he remembered Loretta. She would be home soon as well, and she’d expect him to have dinner on the table. He sighed, tugging off his hat and scratching at his bald pate as the escalator carried him into the crowded depths below. She’d probably want to talk about the kids thing again, too.

#

“One more time,” Farsight chuckled, knife and fork hovering as he grinned at Sam Blake across the dinner table. “She was a what?”

Sam shook his head. He never should have brought it up.

“C’mon, what did you call her?” Farsight probed.

“I didn’t say it to her face.” Sam poked at his lasagna. “I just thought it.” He shrugged. “She looked like a goddess.”

“Really.” Farsight chuckled. He sobered a little, chewing. “Did you tell Loretta?”

Sam sighed, glancing at his front door. “No.”

“Where is she?” Farsight asked around a mouthful.

Sam cleared his throat, set down his fork. “She hasn’t come home yet.”

“The kids thing again?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Gone for good this time?”

“I don’t know.” Sam got up and took his plate to the dispenser. Scraping off the leavings, he added, “I want to make her happy, you know? But if she’d rather be with somebody else,” he trailed off, slipping the plate into the half-empty washer and wiping his hands on his pants. “Want another beer?”

Farsight held up the bottle he hadn’t finished.

“I’m having another,” Sam muttered, reaching into the fridge.

“Do you want her back?”

“Of course I do. I married her, for crying out loud.” Sam cursed under his breath as he returned to the table.

“Know where she went?”

Sam shrugged, swallowing a gulp of cold beer. “I think so.”

Farsight was on his feet, wiping his mouth. “Then let’s go.” He tossed down his napkin and headed for the entryway.

“What?” Sam stumbled after him.

“Wherever she went. I’ll drive. Here.” He handed Sam his coat and hat. “It’s raining out.”

Sam set down his beer long enough to tug on the coat. “Thanks, I guess.”

Jim Farsight was probably the only guy Sam worked with who had his own auto, one of those sporty electro-coupes with a convertible roof. But it was on tight tonight. Sam was careful not to spill his beer as he lowered himself into the bucket seat. Everything smelled new, even though Farsight had gotten his promotion—as well as the auto—months ago.

“Loretta’s dad has one of these,” Sam said over the low hum of the motor. He looked out the rain-speckled window at his neighbors’ houses passing by. “Half a dozen of them, actually. He’s loaded. Always talking about how much he’s worth.” He scoffed. “Never liked me, you know. Said I wasn’t good enough for Loretta.”

“To your face?”

Sam swallowed another gulp. “To my face. Said there wasn’t a computer made that couldn’t do a better job than me, that it was only government charity keeping me employed. That I was a useless parasite, feeding on the taxpayers.”

“Nice guy.” Farsight cleared his throat. “Don’t think about him, all right? This isn’t about him. It’s about you and your wife. We’re going to find Loretta—and you should probably toss that beer.” He slowed the auto as they approached an intersection. “Which way?”

Sam belched. “Left. She’s at his house.”

#

Loretta Blake was going to be forty-two years old, but you never would have known it. Twenty-five maybe, at the most—thanks to New Age science and her parents’ abundant generosity. Every year, they’d given her an all-expenses-paid treatment at the Genesis Health Club where they themselves were lifelong members. The spa treatment included age-reversal therapy, which Loretta never would have been able to afford on her own salary or Sam’s, even if they’d combined their income for a year or two. So it was with a great deal of gratitude and humility that Loretta approached her forty-second birthday, knowing she would be looking yet another year younger.

But she wasn’t getting the age-reversal therapy this year. Instead–

“Oh, you’re going to love it!” Her mother beamed, clapping her hands.

“Oh?” Loretta did her best to hide the disappointment, standing in the entryway of her parents’ stylish four-story home.

“Should be here any minute.”

Loretta set down her purse on the davenport fashioned from artificial wood. She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t remember seeing her mother this animated in recent history.

“Your father will be home soon.” Her eyes danced. “He doesn’t know—he has no idea,” she whispered, her expression bright, “but I don’t think he’ll mind. I’ve had one for years!”

“You both are always so generous.”

“Of course we are! You’re our daughter, Loretta, our firstborn!”

“Is Ashland here?” Loretta glanced down the hall for any sign of her younger sister.

“Oh, I’m sure she is, somewhere.” She laughed. “But come in, we’ll sit down in the living room. Goodness me, you’ve been working hard all day, and we’re just standing around, aren’t we? May I get you something to drink? Are you hungry?”

“No, Mother. But thank you.” Loretta followed her down the hallway where framed photos of all shapes and sizes cluttered the walls. She recognized herself in some of them and cringed. “I shouldn’t stay too long—”

“It had better not be that useless husband of yours. Is he still working only half-days?”

“Most people do, Mother.”

“Not your father. He works as hard as he ever did, and there are some days when I barely get to see him at all!”

“Sam works the hours he’s given.” Loretta didn’t know what else to say. Not everyone is like Father.

“He’s fat and lazy, and you know you deserved better.” Mother turned to face her as they entered the living room. “I mean, look at you!” She took Loretta’s hands and held them outward, gazing upon her daughter with unguarded appreciation. “You’re young! Gorgeous! Vivacious!”

“On the outside, Mother.”

“That’s what counts!” She laughed out loud. “Look at me. I mean really look at me, Loretta. Do I look seventy-eight to you?”

Loretta didn’t have to be polite. “Of course not.” Mother looked thirty, at most. The age-regression therapy worked miracles.

“And it doesn’t just go skin deep, my girl. Not at all. I have all the stamina to match.” Her voice dropped to an earnest whisper, “And so do you!” She clucked her tongue, tilted her head askance. “Not like that bald old man you have at home. Eh? That flaccid little bum.”

The doorbell bleeped before Loretta could answer.

“They’re here!” Mother cried with glee, clapping her hands again and darting for the hallway. “Now, you just stay here Loretta, and don’t you be peeking down the hall. All right?”

She nodded with a slight smile and eased herself onto the sofa. Sinking into the cushion, she was aware of her joints, her posterior, her lower back. They ached. This isn’t the body of a twenty-five-year-old.

“Oh, you’re going to be so surprised!” Mother clapped her hands again with delight.

#

Dr. Arthur Solomon arrived home just as the GELCorp representative, clad in a black suit and hat and carrying a chrome briefcase, was leaving the premises.

“Evening,” Solomon said, striding up the walkway.

The man was taken aback. “Dr. Solomon—I had no idea—I’m-I apologize for not scheduling the delivery at a time when you were home.”

“Delivery?” A curious frown creased Solomon’s brow.

“Yes. The-uh—” he faltered, cleared his throat. “The GEL.”

Solomon set his jaw. “Didn’t order one.”

“Uh-perhaps your wife, then. She signed off for it.”

“Oh?” Why does she need another one? Solomon forced a smile. “A lack of communication on our part. Not to worry.” He slapped the fellow on the shoulder.

The man nodded uncertainly at the Master Designer of GELCorp. “Yes. Thank you, Sir.”

Solomon pressed his palm against the rain-splattered scanner beside the front door. It lit up instantly, and the door slid aside.

“Is that you, Arthur?” Mrs. Solomon called from the living room. Then her head peeked down the hall at him. “Wait till you see what we’ve gotten Loretta!” She beckoned to him excitedly.

He left the front door to shut itself, and she took his arm as soon as he was within reach, directing him into the living room.

“Look!”

There, sitting with perfect posture on the edge of the flowery sofa, was his beautiful daughter Loretta, not looking a day over twenty-five. And seated beside her, watching her mutely as she shifted her gaze among everything else in the room, was the Type 4 Lover model Solomon had seen earlier in the maturation chamber at GELCorp.

Mrs. Solomon nudged her husband with her weight. “A gift from us,” she whispered, beaming.

Loretta stood as soon as she saw her father. The GEL stood with her.

“Daddy,” was all she said, and she swallowed. Her lips remained parted, but no words came.

Solomon smiled at her and strode into the room. “So good to see you, Loretta. You’ve been well, I trust?” He held out his arms to embrace her. She met him halfway, and he squeezed her tight. “Ah yes, so good to see you! And this would be—” His gaze drifted to the GEL in the fine suit. We are the god-makers, he mused. And they serve our every whim.

“Alfonso,” Mrs. Solomon interjected, stepping forward. “His name is Alfonso!”

“Yes,” said Alfonso, bowing his well-built frame at the waist. “I am Alfonso. I am pleased to meet you.” He extended his hand.

“Pleased to meet you as well, Alfonso.” Solomon swallowed, avoiding the handshake. He made a habit of never touching these creatures.

“Alfonso has very large hands,” Mrs. Solomon said.

“Daddy—” Loretta broke from his lingering embrace. “Mother said you didn’t know about this, and I don’t know if I—”

“As long as we can afford it, I don’t mind your mother being in charge of the family credit.” He winked at his wife.

“Oh Arthur, what can’t we afford!” Mrs. Solomon giggled. Then she patted her daughter’s arm. “She’s just feeling a bit shy about it, aren’t you dear?”

“Mother, I—”

Ashland Solomon, epitome of dyed, tattooed, pierced teenage angst, ambled into the living room fully engrossed in her messenger. She collapsed onto one of the sofas and propped her feet up on the armrest without a word.

“Good evening to you too, Ashland,” Solomon said.

“Say happy birthday to your sister, Ashland,” Mrs. Solomon said. “And look at her birthday present! Alfonso, say hello to Ashland.”

The GEL turned to bend at the waist again. “Hello, Ashland.”

No response.

“That girl,” Mrs. Solomon huffed. “No manners whatsoever.”

Solomon took Loretta by the hands. “So it’s your birthday, is it?” He grinned in spite of her blank expression and limp wrists. “Well happy birthday to you! May this year be your best and brightest yet, my dear.”

Loretta stared at him.

The doorbell bleeped.

“Oh, I’ll get it,” Mrs. Solomon intoned. “You just stay here and get to know Alfonso. He’s one of the family now!” She was gone.

Alfonso flashed a dashing smile at no one in particular.

“You Loretta’s new sex toy?” Ashland asked without glancing up from her messenger. She had 937 virtual friends to keep up with, and it was a full-time job.

“Ashland!” Loretta snapped.

“I am both willing and able, should Loretta be in the mood.” Alfonso winked at her.

Her eyes roved aimlessly around the room again. Her father’s did the same.

“I don’t care! I know she’s here, and I want to see her!” a familiar voice shouted from just outside the front door.

Loretta’s rigid frame nearly collapsed. “Sam,” she murmured.

Solomon laughed out loud, grateful for the diversion. “Your husband? Oh, this is perfect! He can meet Alfonso—”

“Dad!” Loretta shouted, close to her breaking point.

But Arthur Solomon had left the room and was striding up the hallway toward the front door. Sam Blake caught his eye.

“I know she’s here, Arthur!” Sam bellowed, brandishing an empty bottle of beer. “You gotta let me in!”

Mrs. Solomon blocked the doorway. “She doesn’t want to see you or your friend there, whoever he is—”

“Farsight, Ma’am,” the stranger introduced himself. “Jim Farsight.”

“Do I look like I care?”

“Now Mother, don’t be rude,” said her husband, coming up behind and placing his hands on her shoulders. “We already have one guest. Why not a couple more?” Solomon coaxed her aside, despite her protests. “Come on in, Sam. It’s good to see you. Loretta’s in the living room.”

Sam frowned at his father-in-law’s hospitable smile and hesitated.

“Well?” Farsight hissed from behind, nudging him forward.

“Yeah.” Sam cleared his throat and set the beer bottle on the wet pavement outside. “Thanks.” He crushed his damp hat between both hands and headed down the hallway. Farsight followed and dipped his head as he passed Mrs. Solomon.

“Can I get you boys anything?” Solomon called after them.

“We already ate,” said Farsight. Then, so only Sam could hear, “Yeah, he’s a real ogre. You’ve sure got him pegged.”

Sam scowled. “I’ve never seen him like this.”

“Cordial?”

“Human.”

Loretta met them as soon as they entered the living room.

“Let’s go home, Sam.” She gripped her purse in both hands and headed for the hall.

“What?” Sam staggered back a step.

She could smell the beer on him. “Have you been drinking again?” She halted.

But Sam barely noticed her. He was staring at the man behind her, the one who appeared to be following her out. The god.

“Hello again,” Alfonso said.

Sam swallowed, wide-eyed. “Hey . . . Yeah, we met before.”

“On our walk to the subway. We discussed the weather.”

“Yeah . . .” Sam said.

Farsight nudged him. “Thought you said there were two of them.”

The GEL had perfect hearing. “My acquaintance belongs to another client, two houses down this street.”

“Yeah?” Farsight narrowed his eyes up at Alfonso. “And who’s your client?”

“Sam—” Loretta urged her unyielding husband toward the door.

“Mrs. Loretta Solomon Blake,” said the GEL with a winning smile. “I am her birthday present.”

“Sex toy!” Ashland sang from the sofa.

Sam blinked. He stared at the GEL, then at his wife. He nodded his head as the situation became clearer in his mind. He turned to his father-in-law.

“You did this.”

“Sam—” Loretta tugged on her husband’s arm.

“Yes.” It was Mrs. Solomon who spoke up with defiance. “You’ve never been good for Loretta. She deserves better than anything you could ever give her.” She stopped herself. Then she spat, “And you’re horrible in bed!”

“Now, Mother,” her husband scolded with a mild frown. “That’s really none of our business.”

“He’s fat and lazy and good for nothing! She deserves better—someone who will satisfy her needs and clean the house and cook and clean—”

“Like yours does. Yes, I know.” Solomon soothed her. “The world would be a better place if every Natural woman on the planet could afford her own Type 4 GEL. You only want the best for our daughter.”

She stared at him with glistening eyes. “Yes,” she murmured and took a step back.

Loretta’s hold on her husband faltered. “It wasn’t my idea,” she whispered. “They just did this on their own, Sam. It’s not something I would ask for.”

Sam looked up at the GEL, whose eyes were now downcast. Did she just hurt his feelings? Was that even possible?

“What’s your name?” Sam asked.

The GEL met his gaze. “Alfonso,” he said with that thousand-credit smile.

“Please, Sam. Let’s go home.” Loretta pleaded.

“You could’ve saved us all some trouble by going there in the first place,” Farsight muttered.

“Shut up, Jim,” she said.

“And—” Sam licked his lips. They tasted sour, like beer. “What was her name?”

The GEL’s brow creased briefly. “Who?”

“The one with you before. When we talked about the weather.”

“The goddess,” Farsight added with wry chuckle. Sam elbowed him to shut it.

“Her name is Sophia,” said the GEL.

Sam nodded, repeating the name, feeling it on his lips, his tongue. Sophia.

Loretta watched her husband, his gaze fixed on the floor as he saw something else behind the glassy lenses of his eyes—until they blinked once, twice, then again. And he looked up.

“Sam?” She frowned at him.

“Yeah?”

“We’re leaving.” She slipped her hand into his and glared at her mother. I love him.

Mrs. Solomon shrugged with indifference, glancing at the bulges in Alfonso’s physique. I’ll keep him for myself, then.

Jim Farsight shuffled his feet and muttered something about starting up the car, then slipped out. Alfonso the GEL stood there grinning and striking various debonair poses against the doorframe. Ashland Solomon remained immersed in her own world, thumbs flying across the screen of her messenger.

“No hard feelings?” Arthur Solomon stuck out his hand and winked at Sam.

Sam met the firm handshake. “Sorry to disappoint you, Arthur.”

Solomon chuckled. “Not at all. As if I need more negative energy in my life.” He confided, “I’m trying to do away with it entirely. I was given some good advice today. Live my life to the fullest, seize the day. Accentuate the positive.”

Sam Blake nodded. Maybe there was something to that.

The way he saw it, he had two options here: get even with his father-in-law for trying to replace him with a genetically engineered life form; or get over it and move on. Take the high road. Be an adult.

“Sounds like a plan,” Sam said. Then he left.

But not before slugging Solomon right in the face.

There were cries of shock and awe as Arthur Solomon slumped to the floor, but he didn’t pay much attention to the ruckus. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, he mused, one hand to his bloody mouth as the pain blossomed outward from his upper lip. He landed hard, colliding with the damned artificial wood of the davenport on his way down.

His wife’s face hovered over him, puckered with concern. And Loretta’s. Even Sam’s—displaying plenty of sudden fighter’s remorse. But it was the large, perfect hand reaching his way that held Solomon’s attention.

“Allow me,” Alfonso said with a gallant smile.

Against his better judgment, Solomon met the GEL’s firm grasp and found himself hoisted to his feet in an instant. His eyes lingered on the logo laser-tattooed across Alfonso’s wrist.

Sam and Loretta were all apologies, Mrs. Solomon a flurry of unbridled indignation; but Dr. Arthur Solomon remained immovable with the GEL’s hand in his own, nodding to himself and smiling ironically through his own blood at the GELCorp motto:

LIFE IS WHAT WE MAKE IT.