by Max Tachis
“KEM-1, report,” The Controller ordered.
“Looking great, boss!”
“… ‘Clear’ will suffice, KEM-9.”
“Right! Sorry. Yes. Clear! Sorry.”
“… That’s an all-clear,” confirmed The Controller. “Await next report.”
Another report?! KEM-9 couldn’t believe their luck. I’ll nail it next time, they thought. Clear. Clear. Clear! Practice was going to make perfect, KEM-9 was sure of it. As if to demonstrate the point, they took another bite of hot dog—their third one out of a planned five. KEM-9 was absolutely thrilled at how well their first mission was going. I’m eating a hot dog! In a park! Things could not get any better for KEM-9, despite the fact that they couldn’t actually taste the hot dog and that their internal storage would have to be unceremoniously hosed clean of all food waste upon return to The Complex. It didn’t matter. The illusion of normalcy that worked so well on the humans walking by was working just as well on the psyche of KEM-9. Psyche? Do I have a psyche? A more apt phrase, they supposed, would be “operating system,” but it sounded less appealing. Less romantic.
Romantic? KEM-9 stopped short of another bite of hot dog and considered the word. It was brand-new, as far as they could tell. Never used before. But it felt right to think it. Romantic … sitting outside, eating a hot dog, offering one of those polite half-smiles to the Elderly Man who just walked by. KEM-9 had practiced half-smiles for almost an hour in front of the mirror, blending in with humans, enjoying the time away from—
Here it comes. Clear.
You’ve got this. Clear.
This is it. Clear!
“This is so much fun!” The groan from The Controller made the moment decidedly less fun. KEM-9 quickly corrected: “Clear! Clear. Very clear.”
“… That’s an all-clear,” The Controller said.
Maybe they were right. KEM-9 took another bite of hot dog in an attempt to raise their spirits, but with no actual spirit to raise, they were starting to taste the tastelessness of the hot dog as it tumbled into the KEM-standard Internal Digestive Compartment. Maybe you aren’t ready to be out in the field.
The call had come only a few hours before. Even for a mission as seemingly critical as this, a couple hours’ notice wasn’t out of the ordinary; KEMs are designed with sudden and efficient activation in mind. What was out of the ordinary was that KEM-9 was called at all. KEM Response Teams are selected in numerical order, the number having been assigned by a variety of factors like skill scores, assessments, experience, and the final determination of The Algorithm. Circumstances rarely dictated The Controller reach even so far as KEM-6, but today, whether by a clerical error or an unfortunate string of malfunctions, KEM-9 had finally gotten their call.
“The Algorithm has detected a slight wavering in Sector SF-12,” The Controller had briefed. “You are activated for assimilation and observation only. When your pod doors open, you will proceed directly to The Inflection Point, conduct your assessment, then carry on with your programmed actions in between regular reports.”
The download began immediately after that, giving KEM-9 their first experience with “The Fizz.” Finally! KEM-9 had only heard about The Fizz in training, so named for the electrical sensation that worked its way up from the KEM data ports at base of the spine to the main processor in their skull. It was a gentle tingle, like carbonation rising from the bottom of a glass, and brought with it everything needed for mission response: actions, environmental details, how each human in play affects the timeline in question. It also provided a rare, direct view into The Algorithm, the master projection of everything that was meant to happen. And everything that was not. Images and tasks rapidly filled KEM-9’s mind:
Buy hot dog.
Eat hot dog. Five bites total.
A Woman in a Red Hat.
A Woman in Gray Running Attire.
An Elderly Man: Give him a half-smile.
A Woman with a Chihuahua: Say the exact phrase, “’Bout time we got some rain,” when prompted by—
“We’d better get you home, Clarence! I think it’s starting to sprinkle,” said the Woman with the Chihuahua, to her chihuahua.
’Bout time we got some rain, KEM-9 thought, but the words wouldn’t come out. They were, instead, staring at Clarence the chihuahua. Had they known the word “cute,” they’d certainly have applied it here without delay.
Clarence was black but had some white coming in on his paws and face that showed both his age and a distinction that could only come from a creature with a boundless wealth of wisdom. He wore a little orange sweater that complemented the color of his coat beautifully and surely helped with the wind that was picking up, but would surely get soaked and heavy and uncomfortable after even a light rain. A sudden, urgent thought came to KEM-9 and couldn’t be ignored.
“He would look so good in a little raincoat,” KEM-9 said. The Woman with the Chihuahua smiled, and KEM-9 offered one of their own in return. It was an unplanned, not to mention unauthorized, facial expression, but it felt good.
“Oh, Clarence has more than enough of those at home,” she replied. “Don’t you, Clarence? He’s such a little fashionista!”
Clarence looked up at her with a weathered gaze that seemed to affirm he had just as many raincoats as he needed. No more. No less. Fashion was not a choice to Clarence—it was a calling, and one he took far more seriously than the Woman with the Chihuahua. She laughed, and KEM-9 laughed, and Clarence felt no need, and KEM-1 broke through on the earpiece.
“We’ve got a wobble.” What? KEM-9’s eyes snapped down at the monitor on their wrist as Clarence and his giggling ward walked away. Sure enough, The Frequency was out of sync. Only slightly, but … Could it be me? Did I just—
“KEM-1,” The Controller said, “confirm misalignment.”
I said the wrong thing.
“KEM-2, confirm misalignment.”
I was supposed to say—
“KEM-9, confirm misalignment.”
—something about the rain?
“… Kem-9, repeat.”
“… Clear? All-clear? Right?”
“KEM-9?” The Controller asked. “KEM-1 reports and confirms misalignment. KEM-2 confirms misalignment. Are you unable to confirm?”
He sounded upset, but KEM-9 had stopped listening. I ruined the mission. I ruined the timestream. The Algorithm is—
Just then, a Woman in a Red Hat rounded the corner on a nearby path and came into view. KEM-9 could only stare.
“KEM-9?” The Controller repeated.
“KEM-9, do you read?”
There’s something I’m supposed to—
“KEM-9! Can you confirm the—”
“Subject A is on-site,” KEM-9 interrupted, looking back at their wrist monitor and trying to stay calm.
“Subject A is on-site. I have visual.”
Subject A is the source of the wobble in The Frequency.
“KEM-1,” The Controller continued, “confirm visual on Subject A.”
That makes sense.
“KEM-2, confirm visual on Subject A.”
That’s why you’re here.
“KEM-9, maintain visual and report any irregularities.”
“Understood.” Assimilate and observe. That was all KEM-9 was cleared for. Don’t interfere.
“You are there to protect the outcome, not affect the outcome,” The Controller had warned at the briefing. “KEM-1 and KEM-2 will step in if any preventative measures need to be taken.”
And nobody prevented me from talking to Clarence’s owner, KEM-9 thought, eyeing the monitor for any changes. Because KEMs aren’t included in Algorithmic Predictives. The Algorithm tracked the projection of humankind exclusively. KEMs were developed for the express purpose of maintaining the necessary outcomes of human history without creating new Inflection Points of their own. All this served to calm KEM-9 somewhat as they returned their attention to Subject A:
The Woman in the Red Hat.
A swift breeze, however, brought with it an unexpected touch of sadness. I can’t believe she’s going to lose that hat forever. KEM-9 watched as she gently tugged it tighter onto her head, knowing it wouldn’t be enough and unable to understand why that bothered them so much. It’s unavoidable. The Algorithm told you all of this before you arrived. It’s just a hat. But KEM-9 knew it wasn’t just a hat. The breeze would grow to a gust, which would blow the hat from Subject A’s head at the exact time that Subject B, the Woman in Gray Running Attire, would approach from the opposite side and miss seeing Subject A as she chased down her red hat, which would end up in the stream by which she stood for just enough time that when she turned back to the path, Subject B would already be gone, so they wouldn’t see each other after all this time and couldn’t reconnect after everything they went through and would never go on to—
“Subject B is on-site,” KEM-1 said.
Would never go on to what?
“KEM-1, repeat,” The Controller ordered.
“Subject B is on-site. I have visual.”
What am I missing?
“KEM-2, confirm visual on Subject B.”
And why do I care?
“KEM-9, confirm visual on Subject B.”
“Stay alert,” The Controller said. “We’re closing in on Inflection.”
The clock is ticking, KEM-9 thought, immediately concerned that they did not actually know what a clock was. Where is all this coming from?! Words and thoughts and turns of phrase that KEM-9 was sure were not part of their Fizz but felt right all the same. Is everyone’s first mission like this? They thought there may be an adjustment period that every KEM goes through that they were all just too embarrassed to talk about, but that prompted another question:
Do we get embarrassed? Do I? KEM-9 wasn’t sure what embarrassment was, but they were somehow certain they saw it on the face of the Woman in the Gray Running Attire. Subject B is embarrassed? To be running? No, to be out at all. Remember? Peeking into The Algorithm offered residual glimpses of all the histories surrounding any given Inflection Point, providing KEM teams a better chance of stopping timeline deviations. She hasn’t been out in a very long time. KEM-9 recalled a flash of grief and pain and loneliness, an image of a nearly empty room and another in disarray, a wave of insufficiency. No, that’s not the right word, but I haven’t been given the right word to use. KEM-9 was getting uncomfortable on the bench, in the park, and with the mission.
“We’ve got another wobble,” KEM-9 thought they heard in their earpiece. A series of questions and confirmations followed, but KEM-9 could only watch as Subject B ran toward Subject A on a collision course that wouldn’t happen.
“KEM-9, report,” The Controller demanded.
“… KEM-9, can you confirm further misalignment?”
“But why?” KEM-9 asked, and the silence that followed felt infinite. Oh, no … “Was that out loud?” KEM-9 thought they thought but realized they actually said. Oh, no!
“… KEM-9, clarify your—”
“It’s getting larger, Controller,” said KEM-1. KEM-9 looked at their wrist monitor then back at the scene, grateful for the interruption.
“What is causing this tremor?” The Controller asked.
The wind was picking up, and the timing of both subjects’ movements was exactly as predicted. Nothing looked amiss. Definitely nothing to make the monitor display such wild misalignment, but the uncertainty and confusion and urgency were making KEM-9 fidget and squirm in their seat. Even though it was getting colder, they felt hotter, and all their clothes were just a little too tight. Or is it the shoes? KEM-9 had tightened them once, as planned, but they’d never worn shoes before, so how were they to know how tight laces were actually supposed to be? Insufficient. That word again, frustrating KEM-9 because it wasn’t quite right and had nothing to do with the shoes they had to loosen as fast as possible, so they leaned forward to free their feet and—
“It’s growing!” The Controller shouted. “All KEMs report!”
“No abnormalities on the scene, Controller,” KEM-1 said.
“No abnormalities on the scene, Controller.”
“KEM-9?” But KEM-9 was watching their wrist with growing interest as The Frequency on their monitor wobbled wildly out of sync the closer they got to their shoelaces, only to level out as they pulled their hand away. “KEM-9, report!”
Back and forth. KEM-9 tested this new development with glee.
“Thirty seconds to Inflection,” KEM-1 warned.
Back and forth.
“KEM-9, what is going on at your position?!”
What if I … Following another wave of impulse, KEM-9 pinched the end of one of the laces and gently tugged it loose.
“The wobble is spiking!” There was a simple beauty in the way the laces cascaded down either side of the shoe. “KEM-9, report!” They touched the ground in loose spirals—“KEM-9?”—that spread out like vines reaching for water. “KEM-9?!”
“… I’m the wobble,” KEM-9 said moments before actually understanding what they meant. But they saw it all, the whole picture The Algorithm showed them—or tried not to?—and stood up from their bench as the wind whipped up into a gust.
“KEM-9, you’re not in position!” Not in position? That’s the phrase! It wasn’t, not quite, but close. Not “insufficient.” Out of place. She feels out of place.
Just like me.
The Woman in the Gray Running Attire needed to see the Woman in the Red Hat this day no matter what The Algorithm said. They could be good at each other. That didn’t sound as right as it felt, but there was yelling in the earpiece and love in the air, and KEM-9 didn’t know what any of that meant but did know one thing:
That red hat wasn’t going anywhere.
Twenty seconds. To the left, KEM-9 could see a teenage boy that wasn’t a teenage boy, barreling down the path toward them on a scooter. KEM-1. Time was running out. The Woman in the Gray Running Attire was closing the distance between herself and the Woman in the Red Hat and the all-important rush of air that formed off the coast forty-four minutes ago was just across the park and dead set on that hat. The wind didn’t know the lives it was changing, but KEM-9 did.
Fifteen seconds. KEM-2, designed to look like an outdoor fitness enthusiast, was running at them now, directly across from KEM-1. KEM-9’s design was not fast enough to get to the Woman in the Red Hat in time to make any difference and now, with both sides of the path blocked by their KEM partners, trying to intercept the hat once it blew off was impossible. There has to be something, KEM-9 thought. They need each other just as much as Clarence needs fashionable raincoats.
Ten seconds. KEM-1 and KEM-2 were only a few yards away, running straight for KEM-9, and the frantic beeping on the wrist monitor was making it hard to focus. Focus on what? What can I do? They clenched their fists, a human sign of frustration KEM-9 was proud to have perfected, and felt a strange, squishy resistance in their right hand. The hot dog … I left one bite … Is that it?
Five seconds. Even less before the KEMs arrived to stop whatever KEM-9 was planning to do. I don’t even know what that is, they thought. If The Algorithm couldn’t see it, how can I? At this, however, KEM-9 was surprised to find they weren’t the least bit concerned. The experience of the last few hours—a full quarter of KEM-9’s life—compressed into one string of rapid enlightenment.
Park, hot dog, bench—
KEM-9 raised the hot dog above their head …
—fun, laughing, Clarence—
… pulled their arm back …
—grief, love, Romantic.
… and let it fly, yelling loud and proud—
“I AM THE WOBBLE!”
* * *
She turned just in time to see a middle-aged man in a newsie cap get tackled by some kid on a scooter and a woman from the free yoga-in-the-park class. It occurred to her that it might have been the same woman who’d been staring just a bit too long for comfort when something came flying out of the air and hit her square in the forehead, knocking her hat off and smearing something on her face. Following the dull thump on the grass at her feet, she was able to retrieve her hat and watch, through the one eye not covered in green goo, as a mangled bit of hot dog blew toward the stream with a sudden gust of wind.
“Holy shit! Are you okay?” she heard someone ask behind her. “I’ve got a towel. Dude sure liked his relish. Hold on.”
“Thank you so much,” she said, turning half-blind and putting a hand out. “I have no idea what—” She stopped, recognizing the hand on the other side of the towel.
“I AM THE WOBBLE!” the man shouted again, overjoyed by whatever it was he thought he accomplished by hucking his food across the park.
She wasn’t listening. The woman in front of her was a vision she thought she’d never see again, outside her regretful memories, and was clearly as surprised as she was that they’d found each other today. Neither spoke as the teenage scooter kid and yoga woman apologized for their eccentric father’s behavior. The wind kicked up. The rain started to fall. She put her red hat back on and tugged it tight.
Max Tachis is an actor/writer from San Jose, California, with plays produced at theater companies across the Bay Area including the world premiere of Perishable, Keep Refrigerated at Renegade Theater Experiment in 2014 and an annual gig writing original short plays for the Ohlone College Theatre and Dance Department in Fremont. The Wobble is his debut work of short fiction.