The prune-man sees things people-persons don’t. The prune-man knows more than any other man-man. So the prune-man says sit still, and Al will sit still. Except for her toes, because they wiggle-wiggle whenever they want to. And her fingers. They do too.
A man-man in a white coat walks by Al’s bench.
Processing-processing. Al’s brain makes funny-funny sounds when it thinks. Pop-pop-popping like popcorn.
No. That man-man isn’t the man-man Al is looking for. He’s too tall. The man-man Al wants is 1.82 meters precisely. That man-man was 1.87 meters precisely.
Good. Not the man-man. So Al can wiggle her toes some more.
“Watch for the man in the white coat,” said the prune-man. “When you see the man in the white coat, follow him. Wherever he goes, follow him.”
That’s what the prune-man said, so that’s what Al will do.
But the prune-man didn’t say how many man-mans there would be on Elara. Elara is a happy place. That’s what Al thinks. Lots of man-mans and lady-persons. And bright colors like Al’s hair when she’s happy. Elara is a happy place. That’s what Al thinks.
A man-man. 1.82 meters precisely. No white coat but clothing is variable. Weight is not. This man-man is the right size tall but he has too much tummy. Not the right man-man.
That’s all right. Al can wait.
“What will you do when you see Zen Mitchem?” That’s what the prune-man asked Al before he left her here.
Zen Mitchem. He’s the man-man in the white coat who is precisely 1.82 meters tall.
Zen Mitchem. Funny name. That’s what Al thinks. So that’s what Al said. And the prune-man laughed at her. And Al felt all tingly and sparkly inside because the prune-man never laughs.
People-persons should always laugh. That’s what Al thinks.
Atmospheric disturbance directly above. Cause determined: level seven gravity pulse engines. Most likely takeoff point: Eastport Dock.
That big ship-ship shouldn’t be flying over the city sections. Level seven gravity pulse engines can cause electromagnetic surges through lower class—
People-persons start screaming across the street when the sign-sign on the pretty building with all the shiny lights starts crying like a sparkler. Sparkle-sparkle! Scream-scream! Silly spaceship captain. Flying too close to low-rated electromagnetic suspension systems.
Oo! Siren-siren! Police-mans coming!
But that’s silly. Silly spaceship captain already went bye-bye.
“Bye-bye!” Al waves at the police-mans as they race-race their hover-hovers down the street.
They don’t wave back. But police-mans never do. They are always grumpy. That’s what Al thinks.
A man-man with a red scarf steps onto the street. It’s the prune-man! He walks to the bench where Al is sitting.
“Prune-man!” Al is happy to see him, so she jumps up and claps to show him. “Al is happy to see the prune-man!”
The prune-man sits and pats the seat. “Sit down, Alfonso. Sit down.”
“Al will sit down because the prune-man asks.”
“Did the prune-man see the ship-ship?” Al points to the sky where the silly spaceship had disturbed the atmosphere with its level seven gravity pulse engines that caused the short circuit in the lower rated electromagnetic suspension systems of the building with the pretty-shiny lights.
“Yes, I did. I wanted to make sure you were not afraid.”
“Al is not afraid.” Al’s hair turns yellow. It does that when Al is happy. “Al is happy to see the prune-man!”
The prune-man is staring. The prune-man does that a lot. The prune-man sees things other people-persons don’t.
“Alfonso, what will you do when you see Zen Mitchem?” the prune-man asks Al.
“Al will follow the man-man in the white coat,” Al says. “As long as the man-man in the white coat is precisely 1.82 meters.”
“That is correct. And what will you do if he runs away from you?”
“Al will follow the man-man in the white coat.”
“And what will you do if someone chases him?”
“Al will follow the man-man in the white coat.”
“And when will you stop following him?” The prune-man leans close to Al. The prune-man has eyes the same color as the wood on Al’s bench.
“Al will stop following the man-man in the white coat when Al sees the man-from-the-black.”
The man-from-the-black. He’s the scary man-man. He’s the man-man who makes people-persons go to black. So Al thinks he is from the black.
“If the man-from-the-black asks you why you were following Zen Mitchem, what will you tell him?”
“Al will tell him she is malfunctioning.”
“Good, Alfonso. That’s very good.” The prune-man pats Al on the head, and he wraps his bright red scarf around his neck. Bright red scarves are good. That’s what Al thinks.
“Whatever happens, Alfonso, you must never tell anyone that you know me,” the prune-man says. “You must never tell anyone where you came from.” The prune-man touches Al’s head. “And you must never, ever let anyone access your cerebral control panel.”
Cerebral control panel. Access port located nape of neck. Wrench-man on the Ahasuerus pick-picked it open. And he went to black. The whole crew went to black. The black-black secret in Al’s brain was danger. The prune-man knows it. The people-persons don’t.
“Never ever,” Al says. “Or people-persons go to black. Al will go to black.”
The prune-man pats Al’s head. The prune-man would be sad if Al went to black, so Al will never go to black. Because she doesn’t want the prune-man to be sad.
“Do you remember what you are to do next? What will you do once you find the man-from-the-black?”
Uh-oh. Scanning. Scanning. Al is searching memory banks, but there exists no data. The last instruction the prune-man issued was to find the man-from-the-black.
“Al does not remember.”
The prune-man pats Al on the head again. “Did I tell you? Did I not tell you?” The prune man sags against the bench. “I can’t remember either, Alfonso.”
The prune-man is very old. Perhaps his neural relays are like leaky pipes. Al thinks that would be very messy.
“Once you find the man-from-the-black, you must stay with him until you find the girl with no name.” The prune-man shuts his eyes.
“A girl with no name?” Al whispers.
Al thinks to have no name would be very sad. All people-persons should have names. Even Al has a name, and she isn’t a people-person. Not really.
“She won’t know her name,” the prune-man says. “She won’t know anything. You must find her, Alfonso. She won’t know anyone. She’ll need help, and if you can help her, you must.”
“The She-Her will be with the man-from-the-black?”
“Yes. She must be.” The prune-man is staring again. The prune-man does that a lot. “I know many things, Alfonso. Much more than any man should know.”
“Al knows. That’s what Al thinks.”
The prune-man smiles at Al. “Yes, Al, you do think. You think for yourself. You are unique—and malfunctioning—the most malfunctioning android I’ve ever known—and you’re perfect.”
“Al is Al.” Al wiggles her toes. “Al likes to be Al.”
“I am glad for that.” The prune-man stands up. “Now, you will wait here until you see Zen Mitchem. Then, you stay with him until you find Ravenwo—the—man-from-the-black. And then you stay with him until you find the girl without a name.”
“The prune-may says it. So Al does it.”
“Good girl.” The prune-man turns away from Al. “I will see you again, my friend. But it will be a very long time from now.”
The prune-man fades into the shadows in an alley. He walks until Al can’t see him anymore, not even the happy red scarf. Al is by herself now, and she must find the man-man in the white coat, so she can find the man-from-the-black, so she can find the girl without a name. And then, when Al is done and the very long time is finished, Al can see the prune-man again.
“That’s all right. Al can wait.”