Copyright is held by the author.
LATER THAT evening, they sat alone in their apartment, wondering if they had made the right decision.
Well, Henrietta the cyborg chicken was there too, pecking at the popcorn Arlette had left at Henrietta’s request, despite Arlette’s only having the microwave variety on hand. Henrietta was programmed to expect the finer things in life. She’d have them, Arlette promised, when the store opened which was a few hours hence at four in the morning.
“This stuff is truly . . . foul,” Henrietta clucked. “See what I did there?”
Arlette groaned and then laughed. “Of all the borked items in all the wrong deliveries in all the shipments from every *Trademark Online Superstore* Warehouses in all the world, you had to be mine.”
The chicken giggled. “Could have been worse. Could have been a cyborg Earl.”
Hearing his name set Arlette wondering again. They wondered not because they had any qualms about having made the last minute switch. Mediocre white man is as mediocre white man does, their Meemaw had always said, though Meemaw had peppered her aphorisms as generously with “f-bombs” as she had cheesed her apple pie with cheddar. Arlette wondered only because they didn’t want to have to explain themself, nor, despite Henrietta’s terrible puns and lack of boundaries vis a vis excreting wherever she wished (rather than outside or in the proper facilities despite clearly understanding social conventions), did they wish to risk Henrietta.
Earl was cheddar cheese anyway.
The commute to and from the city was long but it gave Arlette a chance to listen to books and they were willing to pay the price of an hour each way to have the excuses of crappy cell reception and unreliable WiFi in exchange for rarely being bothered with off-hours support calls and weekend lack-of-preparations-that-weren’t-their-emergencies. They had debt from a degree in AI and machine learning not child development. At first, the boss had scheduled Arlette like everyone else and he’d even put them on a PIP at one point but Arlette had gone half-assed in retaliation and their manager had realized how much he needed them after approximately 45 minutes.
The dirty looks and retaliatory group-project-dumping from their colleagues didn’t really bother them. Especially when they went in on Monday to find zombies at their desks who had been sleeping in the breakroom and eating out of the vending machines since Friday after cancelling dates and karaoke nights and drunken stupors.
When Arlette saw the compensatory mechanism for a tiny dick in their driveway, though, they almost wished they could fake a work emergency.
Arlette had done some dumb things in their life: skydiving, agreeing to squeeze themself into one of those natural tunnel waterslides, eating the scorpion, eating fugu, rolling around in one of those giant hamsterball things during a trip to New Zealand, going a couple rounds in an underground fight club in Hong Kong, introducing one of their girlfriends to their mother, walking up Bourbon Street during Mari Gras, moving back home to take care of MeeMaw and staying.
The dumbest thing they’d ever done was get nostalgic and sleep with Earl after their 20th high school reunion.
To be fair, he was marginally better at it than he’d been when they’d fumbled around in the back of his parent’s Outback, his foot accidentally smacking the hover control mid-whatever he was trying to do to them, their elbow slamming into the horn, and both of them being chastised by two very amused cops, one of whom was Earl’s mom’s cousin and the other of whom was his other mom’s nephew.
But he wasn’t better enough at it to be showing up at Arlette’s house without an invitation they had no intention of offering.
Earl proudly displayed a bottle of Boone’s in each hand as Arlette slung their bag over their shoulder, slammed their door, and put their hands on their hips. “Strawberry for you, Hurricane for me. Remember that time we ran into each other in New Orleans during Mardi Gras?”
Arlette hadn’t known it was him until he’d straightened up from the stripper’s lap and they’d had no intention of making their presence known but he’d chosen that moment to stagger out of the bar and puke — on Arlette’s shoes.
“Got a taste for them then.”
“Twice,” Arlette reminded him.
He laughed, the sound coming from deep in his chest. It was a nice laugh. He was a nice guy. Shockingly smart. Well-read. But for some reason, he still lived in the past. Something was stuck somewhere Arlette never wanted to be again. And Earl was part of that someplace.
“Earl, you just sold a start-up for 100 million… whatever coins. And you brought Boone’s? It’s still the price it was when we were in high school.”
“You can’t beat nostalgia.”
“You really can.”
“I have some Goldshlager in the truck. Can’t remember when I bought it.”
“Why are you like this?”
“I have you to come back to.” He waggled his eyebrows and shook his hips. Damn him for working out anyway.
“I hate you.”
“I know, Princess.”
“Call me ‘princess’ again and I’ll hit you over the head with this bottle.” Arlette grabbed the Boone’s from his hand. “Thanks for the drink, you can leave.”
“You’re not inviting me in?.”
“Earl, listen. You’re cute and you’re reasonably nice, but I’m not interested in being anyone’s partner or anyone’s casual cheddar cheese.” Arlette tucked the bottle under their arm and gave Earl finger guns. “Those are your two search parameters, cowboy. There’s really good AI out there these days. I know, I write it. If you can’t find a real girl that meets your specifications, order one.”
“Harsh,” he returned, shaking his head. “That’s harsh, Arlette.” He shot them a lopsided grin
“Don’t you dare.”
“The sheepish smile. Don’t give me the sheepish smile, Earl.”
“The smile wants what it wants, Arlette.” He put one hand over his heart and jacked it up to his multi-billion-dollar-venture-capital smile.
“If you touch me, I will end you.”
“Understood. No touching.”
Arlette rolled their eyes and opened the door. There was a large package inside.
When one ordered from *Trademark Online Superstore* and the order was worth more than $100, one had to agree to allow the delivery bot to enter the house. “Too many thefts, too much profit loss” was the official excuse though most people thought it was an excuse to spy on consumers and bombard them with pinpoint accuracy ads. Arlette had opted in without fuss; they had figured *Trademark Online Superstore* was probably already spying on them so what was the difference.
“What’s this?” Earl asked, moving the box to the side so he could get past it. Arlette went to the kitchen to pull down two glasses so they could at least pretend to be civilized adults. They reentered the living room, set them on the table, shrugged off their jacket, tossing it over the back of an armchair and dumped their bag against the wall.
“New monitor,” Arlette said, unscrewing the top of their strawberry windshield washer fluid and wondering if it was really worth washing something later. They sighed and forced themself to pour.
“Need help moving it?”
“To my bedroom? Absolutely not.”
“Not even going to give me a chance to woo you?”
“Do you have a death wish?”
“Is that a turn on?”
“Say ‘turn on’ one more time. I dare you.”
Earl held his hands up, palms out and chuckled, “I’m done, I swear.” He forewent the glass.
The box clucked.
Arlette blinked. Surely not.
Earl pulled the bottle neck away from his mouth. “I’ve only had one sip but I swear that box —”
“Not just me then?”
The box clucked again and rocked from side to side as though for emphasis.
Earl crossed to the door and hefted the baseball bat Arlette kept by the door that would do zero good against any sort of enhanced human or electronic invader except in the case of lucky accident but gave them enough of a false sense of security they could sleep as badly as everyone else at night.
“Hey!” Arlette chided. “That’s clearly not my monitor, which means I’m going to have to return it. In one piece!”
“What if whatever it has has eye lasers?”
“I . . . why would you jump to eye lasers?”
“An abundance of caution, Arlette! It turned itself on!”
“We don’t know —” the box rattled again, “— that.”
“Well, we didn’t turn it on!”
The box crowed.
Arlette snorted. “Yeah we did, hero. Turn on,” they said.
The box sounded off and slid across the floor.
“See, this is what happens when you try to flirt, Earl. Turn off,” Arlette drawled. The box went still and silent and stayed that way. “Hand me that box cutter,” Arlette said to Earl after a minute.
“What if it’s just waiting with its eye lasers?”
“Then I’ll sacrifice myself for you, Earl.”
“Sure, why not. Avenge me.” Arlette pressed their thumb to the SmartTape and waited for it to confirm they were the proper recipient of the package before slicing it open. They folded the flaps back and peered inside. “Well, that tracks,” they mused. “And you were right about the potential for eye lasers.”
“I was?” Earl asked, edging closer, bat still at the ready.
Arlette reached into the box and pulled out a cyborg chicken. “This is definitely not what I ordered.” They set the construct down on the floor where it continued to not do anything.
Earl poked it with the end of the baseball bat. It tipped over on its side.
“Hey!” Arlette protested. “That’s a living thing, Earl!”
Earl dropped one of his hands from the grip and shook it back and forth.
Arlette crouched down beside it, turned it to face Earl, and said, “Turn on.”
The cyborg chicken’s eyes lit up. Earl scuttled backwards, shrieking, cowering behind the baseball bat which provided absolutely no cover, until his butt hit the windowsill. He fell forward onto his face, dropping the bat.
When he looked up the chicken was looming over him.
“Arlette,” he whispered, “call it off.”
The cyborg chicken cocked its head to one side. “Are you my mommy?” it asked.
“If I say yes, will you not eye laser me?” Earl asked.
“Mmmm . . .” the cyborg chicken said. “I’ll think about it.”
Earl squeaked. Arlette laughed.
The chicken looked over its shoulder at Arlette. “Is he always this easy?”
“I think I’m gonna like it here. I’m Henrietta by the way. She/her.”
“Arlette. They/them. That’s Earl. He/Him. Unfortunately, Henrietta, you were supposed to be a new hi-res monitor. You’re not mine.”
Henrietta went still for a moment, eyes rolled back. Then, she blinked and shook herself. “Well, shit,” she declared. “That sucks. Unfortunately, I was already reported undelivered and *Trademarked Online Superstore* has sent a replacement programmed for the recipient. Balls.”
“Why’ balls’?” Arlette asked.
“They’ll wipe me. I kind of like this brain, you know? Feels . . . right.”
“Cheddar cheese.” Arlette sighed. “I really need that monitor but I’m going on a trip to Mars that I’ve already paid for and the account is a little bit low.”
Earl sat up. “Since when are you a pet person?”
“She’s cheddar cheesing with you,” Arlette said. “How can I not fall immediately and hopelessly in love with her? Besides, it’s not her fault she ended up in the wrong place. You wake up every morning and decide to be you. Speaking of you —”
“Very little of that money is mine,” he reminded them. “It belongs to the fund and I get a paycheque just like everyone else.”
“A seven-figure paycheque.”
“You know how much that facility Spencer is in costs? And how much I have to pay to keep the media away?”
Spencer. The alcohol. The accident. The state of the art machines and the best care keeping him alive until someone, anyone, figured out how to upload everything that was Earl’s brother into a virtual environment where he could at least pretend to be alive.
That’s why I always let him in the door.
“I may have another idea,” he said.
“I thought I smelled something burning,” Henrietta said.
Earl raised an eyebrow and retrieved his Boone’s. “You want to live or you want to die, chicken?”
“Go on,” she said, scratching at the carpet with her dinosaur feet.
“You ever heard of Cyborg Chicken Fight Night?”
Cyborg Chicken Fight Night was buried a little more deeply than Arlette expected but they found it eventually. They figured Dark Net, a little diving to make it exciting for the people, but they had to go through the Hellfire Net to the Ninth Circuit and even then, Arlette had to call in some favors they weren’t thrilled to lose. They considered turning back but listening to Henrietta harass Earl was pretty fantastic background music and they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have that to look forward to in their life. Also, though Henrietta had supposedly been programmed for someone else, the more the chicken revealed herself, the more Arlette heard themself in the cyborg’s word choice, sense of humour, and attitude toward life, the universe, and pretty much everything else.
They all read the rules together.
“Pfffft,” Henrietta said. “No problem. I have laser eyes.” She tilted her head at Earl. He swallowed, Adam’s Apple bobbing emphatically.
“You don’t have to win the championship,” Arlette said. “Just a couple thousand . . . what’s the conversion on FeedBytes?”
“Three-hundred-sixty to one Golden Eye to six Triad RMB to seventeen Trademark Warehouse Superstore credits*,” Earl rattled off.
Henrietta and Arlette both stared at him.
He shrugged. “I am also very good at my job. And I want a couple thousand. There are a few new reporters getting close.”
“He’s going to provide hours of entertainment, isn’t he?”
Arlette didn’t know if the site they’d found was the wrong one, if it was meant to cheddar cheese with newcomers, or if the first rule of Cyborg Chicken Fight Night was you didn’t talk about Cyborg Chicken Fight Night so following talk about Cyborg Chicken Fight Night landed you in a broken down warehouse with yawning abysses in the floor and bilge water from an unknown source dripping from the rafters. Earl, Arlette, and Henrietta waited almost two hours before anyone else arrived, deciding every minute or so that they would leave and then deciding the next they would wait.
Eventually, the others came. Striding in as though they owned the place, which some, all, or one of them might, carrying bags, boxes, or cages. They took to corners, shadows, edges, set the conveyances down, and then opened doors, panels, and slats.
The cyborg chickens that emerged were scarred, not only their flesh and feathers, but their plates and lenses and wires and prostheses. Scratches, digs, soldiering lines, patches; their histories, their win and loss records, were written on their duo partite bodies. Some of them were no more than animated corpses, more machine than fowl, while others retained full foliage and sported only sensory enhancements and weapons jacked into their vat-grown nervous systems.
One thing, however, was very clear.
Base model Henrietta was going to get her feathered ass kicked.
Henrietta and Arlette both looked at Earl.
“How was I supposed to know everyone cheated at Cyborg Chicken Fight Night?”
Arlette raised their hand.
“Not a classroom,” a person with thick glasses and a stunning, rainbow undercut called across the room. “But go ahead.”
“Do I have to fight the chicken?”
Henrietta snickered. Earl shifted from foot to foot and cracked all ten of his knuckles.
“Um. It’s called Cyborg Chicken Fight Night.”
“Right, no, I get that. And clearly, the rules are more like guidelines but they don’t say anywhere that it’s the chicken who has to fight so is there an unspoken agreement or is it open to interpretation? Does it have to be a literal chicken or can it be a metaphorical one?”
The person pursed their lips. “You know, no one has ever asked that before. Give us the scenario.”
“OK,”Arlette said. “Here’s what happened . . .”
They told the other fighters the whole story.
When Arlette finished, the owners of the battle-tested chickens huddled together in the most shadowed corner.
Earl stopped fidgeting. “Am I really that much of an asshole?”
“I mean, you have your moments. The thing is, it’s you or Henrietta and she’s like a sister to me.”
“She’s a wrong item you unboxed five hours ago.”
“Yeah, but she’s funny.”
“We have a ruling!” the person said. “We’ll let you fight the man-chicken.”
Earl sighed. “Take care of Spencer for me?”
“I promise. And look at it this way; at least you’ll be out of your rut.”
“I liked my rut. It was comfortable and it had bad wine and country music.”
Arlette rolled their eyes. “Goodbye, Earl,” Arlette said, smacking him on the back. “It’s . . . sure been something.” And then to the person with the laptop, “Who’s he fighting?” Laptop pointed to one of the zombie chickens. Its beak was serrated titanium. “That guy,” Arlette jerked their thumb at Robocock.
When it was all over, Arlette started the long walk home, Henrietta at their side. They could have jumped Earl’s truck but anyone who drove a truck that big had some asshole in their DNA and while it turned out in the end Earl was mostly okay, they didn’t want to get his asshole or his rut on them.
They took their phone every so often to glance at their new account balance. They could go anywhere now, do anything.
“Hey Henrietta,” Arlette asked, “how do you feel about Jupiter in the springtime?”