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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Toy Sorry

I'll never forget the Christmas of 2036, when I was thirteen and my sister Kendra was eleven. That was the holiday when our parents finally heeded our fervent, incessant, admittedly whiny pleas and bought us each a MiniScribez™.

I knew from the first moment I spied a couple of book-shaped packages under the pumpkin-spice-exuding, gently quivering, self-decorating transgenic Christmas tree that a MiniScribez™ had to accompany each one of those traditional book-shaped gifts. I just knew it! No parent could be cruel enough nowadays to give their child just a plain old non-interactive book!

With our sleepy parents happily looking on as they sipped their hot apple chicha, Kendra and I tore through the wrappings of the books. Sure enough, I had gotten a copy of Commander Gazzo's Exoplanet Invasion, while Kendra had received The Rhapsody Rangers at Retronym Ranch. Each book was the latest installment in two series we adored. But unlike the previous dumb volumes, these hardcovers bore the distinctive foil seals indicating that they were accompanied by MiniScribez™.

So we rummaged frantically past all the other gifts until we came to the distinctive decorated boxes—shaped like the cartons for a regular action figure or a Barbie doll—that contained the MiniScribez™. Soon, we had the small avatars disinterred from their protective packaging.

My MiniScribez™ was of the author Ralph Podger, famous creator of the Commander Gazzo series, while Kendra's was modeled on Rhapsody Ranger writer Kizzy Quebec. They were dressed in perfect miniature clothing. Handling each soft warm figure reverentially, Kendra and I tapped gently the spot atop their heads that served as the concealed ON-OFF button, and the MiniScribez™ came alive.

Fashioned of LifePutty™, each little writer toy was preloaded with an artificially intelligent partial personality of their original human counterparts.

Ralph Podger disengaged himself politely and with some dignity from my grip and walked over to his book. His voice was resonant and not at all elf-like. "Hello, Bobby! I see you have my latest novel there. Do you want to start exploring it together?"

I looked at Mom and Dad, and they nodded agreeably.

"Well, okay, Mr. Podger, but maybe just a page or two. We have a lot of other things to do this morning. It's Christmas, after all!"

Ralph Podger gripped the illustrated cover of the hardbound book that was resting flat on the carpet and manfully lifted it open, like a full-sized human levering up a giant trapdoor. Reacting to the signature presence of the MiniScribez™, the smart-paper interior of the book came alive with visuals and sound. Captivated, I found that I was floating in space, just above an exotically colored planet.

"Okay, Bobby, here we go! 'Commander Gazzo thoughtfully pondered the surface of the deathworld named Traylorne from orbit, knowing that the infamous pirate Black Helm had gone to ground there—'"

I was riveted to the narration, but could just register Kendra's MiniScribez™ telling her the Rhapsody Rangers story.

"'Ruth and Della could hardly wait for the hyperloop train to Retronym Ranch to arrive. Soon they would be seeing all their school friends for the start of summer vacation together—'"

I made Ralph Podger pause the story. "Mr. Podger, can you remind me of the last time Black Helm and Commander Gazzo tangled?"

"Sure thing, Bobby!" The images on the book's interior changed. "Here they are in the death arena on Peluka Nine—"

Eventually, Kendra and I reluctantly put our books aside. The MiniScribez™ sat quietly and patiently atop their respective volumes, hands folded in their laps, waiting until we were ready to play with them again.

During that Christmas break, Kendra and I employed our MiniScribez™ almost continuously. (They seemed inexhaustible, and required only a patented simple-syrup concoction to remain healthy.) They were so much fun! Each trip through the books was unique, as we could configure the telling with our questions—although we could not detour into full-fledged other narratives in the series. Those had to be purchased separately. And the MiniScribez™ were endlessly responsive and obedient.

But eventually, as children do, we tired of these recreations. Our parents, seeking to inspire more extracurricular reading, purchased for us other volumes by Podger and Quebec—no new MiniScribez™ required! And they also bought other books with other accompanying MiniScribez™. We got quite a few titles from the Young Adult canon: Gaiman, Rowling, Aiken, Pullman. A lot of the other titles were public-domain classics, which sold much more inexpensively, since no royalties had to be paid to living authors or their estates for their MiniScribez™ representations.

Soon our house was filled with MiniScribez™. Poe and Homer, Austen and Alcott, Twain and Nesbit, Salinger and Blume, as well as the more modern ones.

Our Dad cobbled together a DIY dormitory for the MiniScribez™, rather like an oversized dollhouse, where they could relax when they were not in use. He had read in the operating manual that the MiniScribez™ benefited from temporary separation from humans, since seclusion allowed them to enter rest mode and prolong their lifespans, whereas in the presence of their owners they were continuously on low alert for instructions.

And so, with the MiniScribez™ tucked away in their dollhouse, there was even less incentive for us to play with them, and I confess that by roughly the end of March of 2037, we had forgotten about them almost completely.

That is, until one day Kendra came to me and said, "Bobby, you'd better come see what the MiniScribez™ are doing. It's kinda nasty."

The MiniScribez™ dormitory had been relegated to a corner of the basement rec room. Descending the cellar stairs, I heard a rowdy cacophony: shouts and laughter, screams and things breaking, and even some suggestive moans and squeals.

In the basement, the MiniScribez™, now apparently self-actualized—whether from boredom or a programming glitch or some unanticipated synergy amongst themselves—were having a wild party or rave or orgy. Wild music issued from the rec room's commandeered audio system. Many of the MiniScribez™ had shed some or all of their clothing. They had borrowed appropriately proportioned accessories from my GI Joe collection and from Kendra's Barbie gear. Worst of all, they had somehow made their way to Dad's bar and gotten into the liquor.

And so a drunken, topless Stephenie Meyer was hanging half-out of an upper-story dollhouse window and vomiting—very realistically, I should add, in tribute to the makers of the MiniScribez™. John Green was behind the wheel of Barbie's hot-pink Zero-Carbon-Footprint Convertible with Suzanne Collins beside him. They had somehow overclocked the little electric motor and were tearing madly around the basement at about twenty miles per hour, with bendy straws extending from their lips into a nip-sized bottle of vodka perched in the back seat. Homer and Mark Twain had stripped to their underwear and were locked in a grunting wrestling match. Neil Gaiman was perched, singing, on the ridgeline of the roof with J. K. Rowling on one knee and Andre Norton on the other. Scott Westerfeld and Lois Lowry were fencing with plastic machetes formerly employed by the bad guys of Cobra Command. Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were arguing over who had gotten the bigger advances, and seemed ready to trade punches.

Alas, the Salinger MiniScribez™ was hanging, deactivated, by a noose around its neck from an arm of the cat scratching pole.

Even at this late date in my life, I can still summon up the mix of feelings I experienced upon seeing this forbidden, blasphemous riot. A blend of fear and excitement, horror and joy, disgust and appreciation.

Kendra and I stopped at the foot of the cellar stairs. The MiniScribez™ continued to cavort, ignoring us completely.

"What are we going to do, Bobby? How can we get them to stop?"

I was inspired then to seek out my favorite and first MiniScribez™, Ralph Podger. I found him atop the bar, trying heroically to manipulate the giant martini shaker and muttering over and over, "Shaken, not stirred, that was the way Bond liked it—."

"Mr. Podger," I said, "what's going on here?"

The MiniScribez™ paused and looked at me bleary-eyed. "Oh, Bobby, it's you. Sorry about all this. But you see, what you're witnessing is the real behavior of most writers, not that namby-pamby, goody-goody crap that we dish out on command to you kids. You can only bottle up our natural behavior so long before it has to come out, even from a partial personality. We just had to cut loose, or go nuts."

"I think I understand, Mr. Podger. But you'll have to tone it down a little, or our parents will freak out. They'll send you back to the factory for a reboot, and you wouldn't like that, would you?"

Even drunk, the father of Commander Gazzo listened to reason, and eventually he and I managed to get all his comrades to cease their ruckus, clean up the rec room, and retire quietly to their dorm.

Over the next couple of years, until we outgrew them, Kendra and I enjoyed the louche companionship of the MiniScribez™ much more than their formal offerings. They were allowed to cut loose whenever Mom and Dad were out of the house, so long as they restored everything back to order afterward. Dr. Seuss was a big help with that, somehow conjuring up Thing One and Thing Two to help.

When, eventually, we handed down the MiniScribez™ to some younger cousins, Kendra and I were a little sad. But we had internalized all that they had to teach us by then.

Which is why, today, I write best-selling thrillers for a living, with my own MiniScribez™ line, and Kendra is a topflight literary agent renowned for her uncanny insights into writerly needs and neuroses.

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