Keerthi came home from her second ever day of school and went to go wash up for lunch. She stopped as soon as she twisted the faucet and caught a glance of herself in the mirror.
There was something on her nose. A stalk of skin hung near the base, a narrow splinter of flesh.
"What is that?" she said, poking at it.
"I am Chetan," it said.
Keerthi frowned. "Who said that?"
"I told you already," said Chetan. "I am Chetan. We can talk about this later. It is time for lunch. Your mother and father are waiting for you to finish washing your hands and come to the table."
"Lunch does not matter," she said. "I know that you are Chetan. But what are you doing on my face? Why are you there? Pimples are not supposed to talk."
"I am a skin tag," said Chetan. "I am different from a pimple. Pimples are caused by bacteria and stress. Only from love and effort was I borne."
"Please get off my face," said Keerthi.
"I cannot," said Chetan. "We are inseparable."
"That does not make sense," said Keerthi. "Please. Go away. I do not know what inseparable means."
"In this case it means that I am you. I am not all of you, but I am an important part. I am a real skin tag, not a fake."
"I wish you were a fake skin tag," said Keerthi. "Then I could peel you off and be done with you."
"You should not," said Chetan. "Most skin tags are fake! They are still hard to remove. They must be frozen or burnt or chopped off by a dermapopper! They are not borne only from love and effort. They are borne from irritated skin and age and diabetes. I am not like them. I am real."
"You cannot stay," said Keerthi. "Everyone will make fun of me."
"I was on your face since the start of this morning and no one said anything," said Chetan. "If they did, it would not matter. You would not care. Because of your parents."
"My parents?" asked Keerthi. "What do they have to do with this?"
Chetan wiggled up and down.
"I don't understand," said Keerthi.
"Real skin tags are borne when children have good parents," said Chetan. "If children have good parents, sometimes when they are thinking they will hear a voice in their head that helps them make better decisions. If the parents keep it up, when the child becomes five years old the voice will become a real skin tag and appear on their face, or occasionally inside their liver."
Keerthi thought about what Chetan said. It was true that she occasionally heard a voice. Earlier that week her mother had made her lentil soup for dinner, which Keerthi didn't like the taste of. She had been especially hungry that day and it made her angry, so she decided she was going to throw her bowl on the floor and scream.
"You should not do that," the voice had said. "Your mother worked hard on that, and you love her. Lentils are good for you, and it won't taste as bad as you think it will. Once you finish your soup, you will probably get kulfi for dessert."
Keerthi listened to the voice and ate the lentils. She even thanked her mother, who gave her an extra serving of kulfi for having been polite. Listening to the voice had worked.
She did not think anything of it at the time. It hadn't seemed like a big deal.
"But," said Keerthi. "My new friends at school! None of them have skin tags on their faces. You can't tell me that all of their parents don't love them!"
"Most parents love their children," said Chetan. "Loving your child does not mean you are a good parent. There are seventy rules that all parents need to follow and teach if they want to be good and also have their children be good. Loving their children is only one of them. Liking their child is another. It depends on the child, but if between twenty and thirty of the rules are followed, then the child will grow a voice in their head. It will not sound clear unless it grows more and becomes a skin tag. For this, all seventy rules must be followed and then learned. All of your classmates have voices, but they only vaguely understand them. You were like this until today."
"How do you know?" asked Keerthi. "A voice is not like a skin tag. You can't see it."
"You also cannot see most real skin tags," said Chetan. "We are often invisible. The rules are organized from easiest to hardest. The first ten are hilariously easy to follow and teach, and any parent who cannot do that belongs in prison."
"What is the first rule?"
"I can't say exactly," said Chetan. "But it involves not murdering your children."
"My parents followed that one," said Keerthi.
"They did and many more. The twenty after the first ten are harder but manageable with consistent effort. Almost everyone who tries can reach twenty by the time their children turn five, and it is easy to spot the children of those who don't. Children without voices are obvious. They are sad and angry, and there are none in your class. You go to an expensive private school for children who are exceptionally smart, and exceptionally smart children rarely exist without parents who can follow the easiest rules."
"What about Little Matador?" asked Keerthi.
"She is the main character in my favorite book," said Keerthi. "She is exceptionally smart and is kind to everyone she meets. But her parents are horrible people. So is almost every adult she knows. Still, she was brave and polite and never stood for injustice. She had to have a voice, even without parents who taught her the rules."
"That is a story," said Chetan. "It does not work like that."
"You are telling me in the whole world, no good children ever come from bad parents?"
"No," said Chetan. "I'm not saying that. Sometimes people do not have parents, or they have terrible ones… and they have to teach the rules to themselves. Usually parents never go farther than rule fifty or sixty, and the children grow up and spend their entire lives not knowing those rules, but they still become good people. They might even learn those rules as adults and teach it to themselves and grow a skin tag when they are older."
"Right," said Keerthi. "That is what Little Matador was! She learned those rules by herself when she was little."
"No," said Chetan. "Children can't learn all the rules by themselves. Not the early ones."
"Why not?" asked Keerthi.
"The first few rules are about basic survival, and children can, if they are both horribly fortunate and misfortunate, learn about them by themselves. But the rules immediately after that are about teaching trust. You cannot learn trust by yourself. If you do not have someone to help you learn about trust at the start of your life, you will never ever be able to trust someone. It does not have to be your parents but it must be someone."
"But Little Matador didn't-"
"Was Little Matador a good book?" asked Chetan.
"Yes," said Keerthi, confused by Chetan's interruption. "I loved it."
"Then I bet it does not really say that Little Matador learned about trust all by herself. She had someone who cared about her, I will assume. Or even some-thing. Rules do not have to be taught by parents but they must be taught by something external. Little Matador must have been taught the rules by anything that was not herself."
Keerthi thought about Little Matador, a book she remembered well. There had been good people, even before she got to the school and met Ms. Sweet. The parrot. Her neighbor. The librarian. The library itself, the books Little Matador had read, the authors who wrote all of them, if any or all of that counted.
"Oh," said Keerthi. "So it is true. But what about… what happens to people who are never taught those early rules?"
"It is important that humans never allow that to happen. Hopefully there will come a day when there are no people like that."
"You didn't answer the question."
Keerthi's mother called her.
"It is time to eat dinner," said Chetan. "You should not keep them waiting any longer. We can speak whenever you like, and you do not even need to move your mouth."
"My parents," said Keerthi. "They don't have skin tags."
"Your grandparents were not as good as your parents," said Chetan. "You do not need to know all the rules to teach all the rules. It does not make any sense, I know, but humans are able to produce humans who are better than themselves. If that was not the case, we would all be dead."
"Mr. Bucket is a bad person," said Chetan.
Keerthi watched as Mr. Bucket tap-danced on the spot where Chili had sunken into the floor.
"Maybe," said Keerthi.
"There is no maybe," said Chetan. "Mr. Bucket is a bad person. You should leave the factory."
In her entire life before winning the contest, Keerthi had only not listened to Chetan on three occasions. The first time she didn't listen to him she chipped a baby tooth. The second time she was sent to bed without supper. The third she spent over four months having horrible nightmares about the flame moths.
Chetan had never led her wrong. When she followed his suggestions, she ended up happy and well-rested. When she didn't, she fell off slides, got into pointless arguments with her parents, and was viciously assaulted by ravenous swarms of pyrokinetic moths.
Nobody had believed her about the moths.
The fourth time she had gone against Chetan's advice was when she ran away to run through the doors to the factory. Since then, almost every time Mr. Bucket moved or said something, Chetan reminded Keerthi that he was a bad person and that she needed to leave the factory.
At first she told herself that she was in a unique situation and that Chetan might have been wrong about it. Nobody was right about everything all the time. This became harder to say once she saw the corpse, and when she briefly thought Mr. Bucket was a slaveowner, and when JUROR fell down the stairs. But she still told herself it. She had never met a person, not in real life, who was truly not good. She thought Mr. Bucket had been pretending.
When Chili's stomach imploded she tried telling herself that Chili was an actor, but she only did it once before accepting that it wasn't true. She knew in her heart that Chili wasn't acting.
Mr. Bucket was a bad person.
"Please stop tap-dancing," said Tide. "It's disrespectful."
"This is the dance of my countrymen!" shouted Mr. Bucket, who was sweating heavily. "This is an honorary custom for those we have lost."
"You said he didn't die," said Lim.
"It's an allegorical lost," said Mr. Bucket. "Chili is a citizen of this splendid nation and I shall honor his efforts to continue the tour, even if he was an awful guest."
"You didn't do it for JUROR," said Tide.
"He was not a citizen."
"Right," said Lim.
Mr. Bucket stopped dancing.
"You four children do not understand. He had a fatal flaw! His gluttony was his achy heel. Truly, this was not his Chili and the Cho-"
"Stop doing that," said Tide. "Can we keep going?"
Mr. Bucket sighed. "If you insist."
He pulled out a coin and tossed it up into the air. He palmed it before anyone could see.
"Mahuika," he shouted. "Eye or vape! I cannot decide, so this will select the next room we go to."
"Vape," she said.
"Vape it is!"
He uncovered the coin. There was a picture of the man vaping on it.
"You got it! In that case, we will go to the Control Center."
They began to walk out of the Vaping Room.
"Wait," said Keerthi. "I want to ask again. Mr. Bucket, why did you invite us all to this factory?"
"My reason is simple," said Mr. Bucket. "It is all for a gag."
The Control Center was a tall room shaped like a pen. The four children and Mr. Bucket entered from the bottom and walked over a long spiral ramp made of cemented gumballs. When they reached the top, they found a dark room shaped like a small dome, with hundreds of thousands of television screens lining the walls from top to bottom. It was impossible to look anywhere other than the floor and not see a screen.
Keerthi looked at one screen and saw a ship sailing over a sea of moving licorice. In another, an oven baked cookies with mouths, complete with teeth and tongues. None of the screens had sound but the cookies looked as if they were screaming.
"Gross," said Mr. Bucket. "I hate all screens."
"But this is yours," said Keerthi. "You set this all up. You ran the contest over the net too. That involved screens."
"It must have been on accident," said Mr. Bucket. "I hate all screens! Television is terrible! Children are always watching too much television."
"But you work with television people all the time," said Tide. "They made all those movies about you. They would have needed your permission for that."
"Shut up," said Mr. Bucket. "This is the Control Center. This is the most important room in my factory! The Center Controller lives here. I send the Controller orders with the chip in my brain and it follows those orders and moves the walls and floors around."
"Where is the Center Controller?" asked Keerthi.
"It's an artificial intelligence," said Lim. "In the walls, I would assume."
Mr. Bucket laughed. "No! I do not make those. I am not crazy! The Center Controller is over there in the middle of the room."
He pointed with his cane to a statue in the middle of the room. It was black and mostly featureless as far as Keerthi saw from a glance, aside from the face, which resembled an old man's. About twenty copper wires, each thicker than Mr. Bucket's cane, fed from the statue's eyes, ears, neck, stomach, and back, leading to holes in the floor near the screens.
"The Center Controller is named J," said Mr. Bucket.
"What is it?"
Mr. Bucket smiled. "You remind me! I asked a question earlier. Children, what do you think should happen to lazy people?"
"Oh my Ocean," said Tide. "No."
"I can't detect if anything is in there," said Lim. "The walls of the statue are too thick."
"I vape," said Mahuika.
Mr. Bucket tapped his foot. "So are none of you going to answer?"
"Mr. Bucket," said Keerthi. "Is there a person inside of that statue?"
"No," said Mr. Bucket. "You did not answer my question so I will ask another. This time you must all answer. If someone told you that you were going to have to die, and they gave you a choice to either burn to death or drown to death, which would you pick?"
"Why aren't you answering?" asked Mr. Bucket.
"We assume that you are going to burn us to death or drown us to death if we do," said Tide.
"I promise that I won't if you all answer," said Mr. Bucket. "What do you say! Who is for the burning? Raise your hands."
Lim and Mahuika raised their hands.
"Why did you choose that?"
"Less pain," said Lim. "Quicker."
"If I was underwater, I could not vape," said Mahuika.
"And you two! Why did you pick the drowning?"
"Ocean's embrace would be a peaceful exit," said Tide.
"The moths," said Keerthi.
"What bad answers! You are both wrong. Lim and Mahuika are correct. Burning is much better," said Mr. Bucket. "You burn up quick! It is worse than drowning for only a small tick of time, but then your nerves burn up and you feel scrokkinaut."
"So what?" asked Lim.
"I will tell you! One day I was having an argument with a lazy person after I fired all of the Oompa Loompas. I told them that they should let me put a special chip in their brain so I can issue them commands and have them control the factory for me and they told me no. I said why not! They gave me an answer, but it was a lie, since they were lazy and wanted to lie around all day. They did not care if it hurt me. They only wanted to sit and watch everyone around them work. I waited until they were asleep and gave them the chip."
"Mr. Bucket is a horrible person," said Chetan.
"Yes," said Keerthi.
"They woke up and they were not happy! I asked them why they weren't happy, it was only one little chip! They said it was less the chip and more the twenty heavy copper wires tying them to the wall and the voices in their head. I told them to try working for once in their life to forget about it and they refused. So! I started burning."
"You incinerated someone because they didn't want to be your robot slave?" asked Tide.
"No! I did not want them to be my slave. I wanted them to be a Center Controller. And I did not incinerate them. I replaced their skin with an unbreakable chocolate coating that makes it feel like their skin is always on fire. The only way it stops feeling on fire is if they follow my commands and make the walls move the way I want to when I tell them to but only for a second."
"You said there was not a person in there," said Lim.
"There is not! There were people in there."
"People?" asked Keerthi. She ran around to the other side of the statue and looked closely at the sections where the wires fed into it. There were frozen faces burnt into the torso and back of the body, five in total. Two men, three women.
"Do not worry!" said Mr. Bucket. "They were all terrible people. Much worse than JUROR and Chili. They defended a man who let a child starve because he wanted to chew tobacco and sleep all day. Do not feel bad for them! I have scanned their brains. They do not think anymore. They are not people anymore. They are machines that work because they do not want to feel pain. Like clams! Happy chocolate clams that are always on fire forever."
"Leave the factory," said Chetan. "Leave the factory leave the factory leave the factory."
Mr. Bucket looked at all of the children. His smile flew away.
"Oh no! I knew this would happen. All of you look scared. Children, have no fear. We will be away from these horrible screens soon."