I’m cross-posting this from Elsewhere In Dreams, mostly because that blog isn’t really set up well for fiction. This is from something I’m writing right now. It’s just an excerpt of a longer work, and it’s pretty rough at the moment. I follow a “write fast, edit slow” mantra. I’m not sure where blogging fits into that, but it’s definitely before the “edit slow”.
The day before camp was over and everyone left, he was sitting in a group of friends around the fire. They were talking about something important or something funny, either way, not it was not something particularly memorable. He looked up for a moment during a pause in the conversation, and there she was, looking back. He held her gaze for a few uncomfortable seconds, then looked away. When he sneaked another glance, she was gone.
A short staring match, but an impression that could not be unmade. She was tall, almost as tall as he was, but angular in a way he would never be. A triangular face, topped by a thick, unruly frizz of un-quality-girl-short hair.
She tapped him on the shoulder. “I need to talk to you,” she said.
He, unused to the attention of women, simply stared at her.
“Over there,” she said.
He got up. She walked him over to a gentle grass hill sloping toward the lake and sat down. “Let’s look at the stars,” she said.
He didn’t say anything, simply sat down and looked at the stars. He wasn’t sure if there was anything to say. He didn’t know what cues to take, if there were any cues to take at all. He simply lay on his back looking at the stars, with her an appropriate distance away. Not close enough for anyone to get any ideas, to break through the veil of innocence.
“I want to tell you something,” she said. “I want to tell you something and I don’t want you to freak out.”
“Okay,” he said. “I won’t freak out.”
“You don’t know my name, do you?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “ But I’ve seen you around.”
“I’ve seen you around too, and I know your name,” she said. “I’ve seen the way you look at the Bible girls.”
“Bible girls?” he repeated.
“The spiritual ones. The ones with the Bibles.”
“Oh,” he said, “I call them the quality girls.” It seemed odd to tell her this. It was not something he had said out loud before.
“You should stop looking at them,” she said.
She took his hand, which had been against the fading warmth of the ground and the sparsity of grass. She took it without warning, without asking, her palm against the back of his hand, the warmth of it surprising, the accelerando of his heartbeat more surprising still. He did not resist as she took it and laid it against the flatness of her stomach.
“You should stop looking at them… and start looking at me,” she said.
He did look at her then, at the profile of her face against the moonlit brightness of the water. He decided that his heartbeat had risen at the surprise of the situation, at the shock of her forwardness. There was no desire there, he told himself.
“Why?” he said again.
“God,” she said. “God told me that I’m going to be with you.”
While she invoked God with her mouth, her hands told a different story. Still holding his hand under hers, she began moving it along her stomach, coasting the smooth cotton of her shirt, over a button and halting at the waist of her jeans.
“I am going to be with you.” She said it with certainty, as if the future was laid out.
Before she could guide his hand any further south in the presence of anyone who cared to glance down at that gentle hill sloping into the lake, he snatched his hand away.
His voice shook as he spoke, trying to be as gentle as possible. “I don’t even know your name,” he said. “And I don’t think God talks to people about me.”
She didn’t say anything for a long time. Then she got up, walking away, leaving him there, looking up at the infinity of stars swimming the in the clarity of an atmosphere that seemed to have completely disappeared.
He saw her the next day loading suitcases into her car. She did not look in his direction. She did not look in any direction in particular, it seemed, intent on the task at hand. He imagined hers a purposeful focus, a directed non-engagement, but he had no way to be sure.
He wondered if he should say something to her, or approach her to apologise. For what, he wasn’t sure. Either way, he did none of those things. He drove away from the camp with the others, sure he would never see her again.
High fiction is some boring stuff. Sorry. I’m a populist sometimes. I don’t much like reading a book where nothing much happens. I don’t much like studying the quantum fluctuations of the misunderstood soul. Unless it’s so very well done that you don’t realise what you’re reading till later. That’s rare, though. Vanishingly so.
I think most themes and plots have been exhausted now. We’ve been recording and collecting these tropes for so long that they’re engraved on our collective psyche. Trite is trite for a reason, after all (this statement is itself trite, so it’s kind of meta, though making a comment about the meta-ness of comments about triteness being trite are themselves, now, trite; it’s turtles all the way down). We need a phase shift, a perspective change, to make these things fresh.
Enter sci-fi and fantasy. Both bad genre names. Fantastic fiction, if you will. Where you get to examine something (if you want to) by shifting it from the familiar to the non-familiar.
It’s hard not to think about the hackneyed conventions of the genre. Hard sci-fi in the mould of Azimov, with multi-dimensional ideas but flat characters. Swords and sorcery in the mould of Tolkien. These restrictive categories are populated with all too many examples of bad fiction. Yet even within them there are still great strides being taken, especially by authors willing to embrace and subvert the subgenres. I think, of course, of Peter Watts or Scott Bakker.
But if you blow past those subgenres you can find some excellent work being done in areas that don’t even look much like traditional fantasy or sci-fi. Steampunk, for instance, seems to be both. Urban fantasy (here there be monsters, by the way; be very, very picky) doesn’t resemble fantasy as much as it resembles good old-fashioned inter-village storytelling. Names like Miéville and Gaiman stick out here.
This seems to me where “genre” writers are really pushing the boundaries of what fiction can do, and reconnecting with what fiction originally did. Beowulf, the Illiad and the Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh would all be considered genre fiction if they were written today. You’ll notice that the surviving oral traditions, the ones that were written down, were prima facie fantastical.
There’s something in fantastical fiction that appeals to us humans. What that is, I don’t know. But it seems a shame that genre fiction is marginalised whilst literary fiction (mostly dull stuff) is celebrated.
Hetan sits astride his horse. Herds of durkhan span the horizon, many small knots of the animals, knots that will form into a massive migration as cooler seasons arrive.
He is the tallest of his tribe, his horse the tallest of its tribe. Three heads or so above all the others, he is the eyes of the hunt. When they approach the durkhan, he spots the vulnerable, the young, the outliers. His word is law to the others. To disobey is death, if not by a foaming durkhan, then later, by the tribe.
They are riding upwind, a leisurely approach to the herds, designed to spook as few animals as possible. Each has a bone knife and a hunting spear. The older among the hunt wear hard leather overcoats, made to deflect a durkhan tusk or a wayward spear.
Hetan alone wears a metal sword. A gift. It will not be useful in the hunt, at least not often, but he never rides without it. He has named it Caution, for many reasons, but mainly because a great weapon deserves a sublime name.
They move slowly, deliberately through the tall plain grasses, the horses picking their way around scrub brush. This is the calm that comes before.
There is something odd about this calm, though, something unnatural. The herds should be sensing something, should be massing together to protect the young. Instead the herds are simply grazing, heads down, tails flicking back and forth.
Then Hetan sees it. A man, perhaps. Walking in the midst of the durkhan. Simply walking.
Hetan holds up a hand and the hunt stops. “I see,” he says, his voice low, “something.”
“Something?” one of his hunters repeats.
“A man by appearance,” Hetan says. “Walking through the herds.”
“Then no man by nature,” says Yemid, one of the oldest among them. “The herds would panic.”
Hetan nods. “Yet…” his voice trails off. “I know this man, whatever he is.”
“I do not know. But I will ride to meet him.”
“You are our eyes,” Yemid says. He will not tell Hetan what to do, but he will remind him of his place.
“Nevertheless,” Hetan says.
He breaks from the hunt and rides, alone, toward the figure, towards the herds. He is as naked as a hunter can be, stripped of his companions, vulnerable on the plain. Hetan can see the man now, dark-skinned, tall, and dressed in chain mail. Of all the useless things to be wearing on the plains. Chain mail. Hetan snorts involuntarily. Foolish. But the herds do not hear him. The man, however does.
“I was clothed in these when I died,” he says. And though he is still far away, his words are clear, as if he is riding right beside Hetan. “It amuses me to wear them, sometimes.”
“You have the Tongue,” Hetan says.
“Yes, and the Ears, as it turns out,” says the man. “And you have the Eyes.”
“It was a gift.”
“Yes,” the man says, standing still, facing the rider, still some distance away. “I gave it to you.”
“Then you are…”
“Again. Yes. Demeg Amalen, as your fathers might say. Tip of the Spear. Or Chaelder, in the language of the Frelish. The Helm. And quite a few more, some even I dare not speak.”
Hetan is approaching the man, and realises what he already knew. This is not a man. Not of any kind he has ever met. This is a god. For his tribe, for his nation, this is the god. Amelen, the Spear. God of war.
He dismounts, drops the reins. Kneels at the feet of his god. Who kicks him in the head.
“That’s not really needed,” Amalen says. “Stand up. I have a message.”
Hetan rubs his head. No blood. Good. But still, undignified.
“I’m not much for all the pleasantries of godhood,” Amalen says. “I’ve come to tell you something.”
“To tell me something?” Hetan knows this will be considered a great honor, but with a sore head and a distinct sense of his lack of dignity, he is more annoyed than anything.
“Yes. These herds. Get away from them as quickly as possible.”
Hetan shakes his head. “The tribe must eat.”
Amalen rolls his eyes. “Stubborn. Great. Eat something else. Something small, something that won’t be noticed, something very, very far away from here.”
“And why must we starve?” Hetan asks, indignant now. “What great sin have we done that we are cast out of our lands?”
“Listen to me, barbarian. You have spilled much blood in my name, supposedly for me, and I’m here to answer the prayers you have yet to pray. The prayers that you assuredly will pray if you stay in this place. That herd you are going to prey on? It is no herd. It has never been. Every year this herd disappears, did you ever notice that? Did you follow its tracks to see them diminish until they were nothing but a pair of human footprint?”
“In the winter months we eat from the salted stores or set traps,” Hetan says. “There is no need to follow the herd. It would be a senseless slaughter.”
“And he knows that. Oh yes, he’s willing to sacrifice a bit of himself, those young or deformed, anything you can catch. He know you won’t kill all of him, he know you are almost alone among the people of the world who won’t kill all of him, and so he comes here. Do you know why? He comes here to hide. From us. He hides from the gods!”
Hetan is confused. “He? Who is he?”
“One of the first heroes, Hetan. One of the Great Ones. A power so immense he might even seek to dethrone the gods. He is a man, but he is also the durkhan. Many lifetimes ago he found a way in, he found a way to meld himself to the herds, to become so many animals at will. The ritual… ah, that ritual scoured this plain clean. Did you know this delightful meadow was a range of mountains? He moved the mountains. Do you understand now?”
“We have been devouring the flesh of a man?” Hetan steps back, horrified.
“The flesh of man, the flesh of a beast, is it so different? No matter. We have found him now. We have found him and we are going to chain him to the heart of the mountain that still beats under this plain. And when we do that, we may indeed find a range of mountain here again.”
“I begin to understand, then,” Hetan says. “You seek to warn us.”
“You will probably die,” the god replies. “You will probably all die in this chaining. But it must be done. He must be… put down.”
“Because he challenges you?” Hetan says, beginning to think the gods are as selfish as their legends tell. “You fear the durkhan?”
“Because he challenges everything. He has been melded, his soul has been joined to the soul of an animal for many thousands of years. How sane do you think he might be? Every year his flesh bursts forth into a thousand, a hundred thousand durkhan. Incredible, mindless pain. Did he know how much agony he would see, century after century? If so, can you imagine how desperate a creature he must have been? To forge such a profane ritual. Insanity. Or if not, can you imagine how desperate he is to escape? His power grows with each year. The herds grow. Even I can feel it now, and I am not among the most… receptive of the gods. And where do you think he’ll go to escape his torment? Not to the halls of the dead, no, anywhere but there. He’ll go up. And you know what’s directly above him? Me.”
Ah, Hetan thinks. “This is about position. You chain him to the earth so that you may rest on your ass in whatever realm you call home while my people leave their lands, perhaps to die?”
“You have no idea!” Amelen roars. “No idea what will happen if a beast ascends the throne of war! Everything will be lost. Everything. He… it will lay waste to the dreams of every man. He will not lose his torment, no, not at all.” The god lifts up his chain mail, revealing a gash across his torso. It oozes blood and fluids. It looks… raw. “I have lived with the pain of this wound for every single one of what passes for days in my realm. Every single one. It’s a wonder I’m sane. Perhaps,” he says, “I’m not.”
There is a moment of silence. Hetan does not know what to say to this.
“There is no time left for choices, barbarian. No more time to take stock and make decisions. The gods are as one. We will chain them all. Every single Great One. All the champions. All the heroes. All the swords. We will chain them as far down as we can push their miserable, undying corpses, and we’ll throw away the key.”
“And then you’ll turn away,” Hetan says. It has been revealed. He knows the ending to this story. The great warleader conquers every foe and goes home to die. But gods do not die. Or perhaps they do, but first they turn away.
Amalen’s eyes widen. “You have discovered the plot, then,” he says. “Yes. We will turn away. You will be better without us. No blessings, but no curses. You will, I think, become your own gods of war. Congratulations. None of you prayed for this. But you are given it anyways. It is done. Now, leave. I will protect you on your way back to your tribe.”
With that, Demeg Amalen, the Tip of the Spear, is gone. Not so much as a rustle in his wake.
The herds still haven’t sniffed Hetan out. They can’t hear his footsteps, he realises. They don’t know what is about to happen. To them.
He looks at one grazing, picking at choice bits of green. Its tusks can tear a man open, leave him empty and dying on the plain. He looks into the durkhan’s eyes, but can’t see anything. The dull eyes of a beast.
Before long, he is riding away. Back to the tribe, to convince them to leave the plains that had once been mountains. To convince them that they would be mountains again. To convince them, and perhaps to die.
They chained them all to the earth, in barrows, under mountains, in underwater caves. Wherever they could. Anywhere that would hold them. The gods cleansed the world of heroes. They wiped it clean of champions. They made a fresh start.
But the great ones did not go easily. As chains began encircling they fell heavily. If the gods would so abuse their children, well, the children would abuse the grandchildren. So the earth witnessed. Molten stone rained from the sky. New craters became new valleys. In turn new valleys became new oceans. Continents cracked apart and continents merged. Mountain ranges rose and fell.
When the chaining was at its end, when the ritual was over, the gods looked out at a world in birth pangs. A world of fresh fire and fresh ice, where perhaps all that once stood was levelled. Perhaps.
Then the gods turned, as one. They turned and left the world, and took with them all their gifts and curses. The awesome and vile power wielded by the talented ebbed away. Whatever priests remained alive felt a chill steep into their souls. The gifts, the curses, all gone.
The few that could feel, felt, and knew the terror of rebirth. The blindness of change, of newness.
They would get over it. Eventually.
The gods retreated to do what gods do. Some slept. Others pushed the borders of their realms further into the Unmade, became explorers. Others simply fell to dust.
Only one god did what none of the other would. He returned to the mortal world. Oh, it was cheating. They had agreed not to return. Not to step onto the mortal plane again.
But he knew what he was doing. Krastas, god of the harvest, knew what he was doing. He scattered himself on the current of the winds. He made of himself a million seeds.
Where he touched down, a tree sprung forth. Roots sunk down, deep down, seeking. One more link to bind the chains. Should they ever find away. Should they ever seek to escape.
A million strange trees, each bearing nine faces. Nine faces, eight turned to the side, one facing forward. To stare for ever at the world. To bear witness.
“Can you imagine it being any other way than it is?” he asks. He has always wanted to ask this.
“Yes,” she replies, simply.
She shrugs. “Some are better, some are worse. Some much better, some much worse.”
He nurses his coffee. Thinks on this. He is free of disease so far as he knows. He is drinking luxury everyone has forgotten is luxury. He has a roof over his head. He is still in love.
“So everything is a matter of degrees,” he says, a little while later.
“Yes,” she says. “And no.”
“Now you’re just being cryptic,” he complains with a smile.
“I don’t want to create certainties where there aren’t any,” she says. “I don’t believe in it.”
A moment’s though. “‘I want to wade into the greyness of it, and fill my lungs,’” he recites. “‘Like smoke, like cloud, to feel unmoored from everything and cast adrift.”
“Not from everything.”
Of course not. “But from some things.”
“Sure,” she says. “From some things.”
“‘And face my fears,’” he continues the quotation, “‘for they are many.”
“Something like that,” she says, and for the moment they are both satisfied.
He looks at her. “It’s shit,” he says.
“Shit,” she replies. It’s a word she’s never heard before.
“Yeah, shit. Like you don’t understand language.” A brief silence. “Or syntax,” he adds.
A longer silence. Strained.
“No points for trying, then?” she says. She wants to make a joke.
“No points for trying.” He takes the printout from her. “I’d burn it if I could.”
“I still have a copy at home,” she says. “I could print it out again.”
He balls it up. Tosses it across the street. “Don’t do that. Delete it.”
She stares at him. Not sure what to say. “Okay,” she says, instead the other thing she wants to say.
He doesn’t say anything else. Stares into the distance. She studies his shoulder.
That evening, she deletes it.
From the Lecture Series of Shen Eclen at the Gnostic Library, 3450 Gnosis: “Toward A Common Meta-Philosophy”
Think about “word of power” as we call them. Even think in terms of incantations, or so-called magic, as the unskilled do.
Where do they come from?
It seems obvious that all the Schools are drilling down through a philosophical fruit, trying to find the core. Trying to see what’s there, or comprehend that final word. It seems obvious, but it isn’t. There’s no guarantee that there’s a final word. There’s no guarantee that there’s even a single fruit. These are narratives we’ve built to disguise the fact that we press ever onward into more complex and difficult philosophical inquiries with no guarantee that there’s a goal other than more control over the physical world. Even that, sometimes, isn’t guaranteed. Long stretches have passed for each School where discoveries, if there were any, were refinements on long-known precepts. Though each of these periods of inactivity, of stasis, has so far been followed by a flurry of brilliance, no one should presume that the next period of stasis must necessarily end that way. Each discovery may well be the last.
We have, in this series so far, compared and contrasted the different philosophical underpinnings of each of the Schools. Some, as we have seen, share epistemic root. The Gnostic and Syncretic Schools originate in differing interpretations of the revelations of prophet Moshep. The Silvaraeic, the Rammimnic, and the Chosen all derive their Schools from wildly differing accounts of the ironically named Nameless One. A few of the minor Schools share minor roots, though most of them derive at least in part from ecstatic cults and lack a truly coherent philosophical tradition.
Now that we know the differences, let’s take a look at the similarities.
All the Schools practice speech. No serious Schools take very seriously the idea of a separate, complimentary system based on one of the other senses or a hidden sense that can only be tapped into with training, as some have suggested. All the major Schools have investigated such avenues of inquiries, though never publicly, and all have refuted them time after time.
Since the Schools practice speech, it’s necessary to ask how speech does what it does. Or to put it another way, we must define its method of action. This is by no means a settled question, despite what your Schoolmasters would have you believe. We may hold that the world is made up of specific pieces and words simply act on them, but from whence to they derive their power? Or we may hold that the world is essentially made of words and our speech acts upon the world by rewriting those word, enacting a new reality, but why some word and not others? This is a profound question that deserves a profound answer. In my opinion, we have not yet arrived at that answer.
All the Schools are bound by a commitment to responsible use of the words of power. We understand the consequences of over-use and of constant casual use, so much so that we self-legislate and attach great penalties to such actions. Co-incidentally, philosophical traditions aside, responsible use is one of the great founding pillars of the Schools in general, and of the Great Five in particular. We understand what it means to have a truly great word-fire. We have together sacrificed many talented individuals to stop them, though, thankfully, not for some time. We are united in this goal, and though we may seek to destroy each other sometimes, we all seek not to destroy the world at all times.
All the Schools are also bound by a strict static set of political imperatives. Though they may not realise it, the governments and religions of this world –
[Text beyond this point has been destroyed; many thanks to scholar Jorell Sarindar of the Gnosis for the recovery and translation of this document.]
This is how they would take the Library: Floating on the air, arms outstretched, limned in red fire. They move inexorably towards us, mumbling the words that make it so. We do nothing. We do not reply. We have been here before, many times. The Library has been burned, dismantled, destroyed by them, but each time the texts are not there. The texts have been taken, secreted away, and so they come, the same as always.
A sentry posted to the wall sees them and sounds the alarm. We crowd up against the tops of the walls, watching their dreadful approach. We are, to a man, afraid. They are powerful.
We hurl few mundane weapons their way. They bat them away. I imagine them laughing as they do so. I loose an arrow at one of them, and the arrow flies straight until it encounters a spike of red fire and plunges to the ground, burning.
Prederios, my closest friend, speaks to his arrow. Its dullness begins to shine. It takes on that familiar preternatural blur. Others are doing the same, sending their words into the mundane wood and iron, hoping to make it… more.
An arrow speeds toward one of the floating figures, something enchanted. He senses it and seems to shrink back for a moment. Then a searing blast of fire. He is using great words, perhaps overestimating our prowess. Red fire battles with the darker flame exploding outward, but briefly. Both snuff out, leaving a visible tear. Air rushes in. The world stitches itself together, a chaotic door slamming shut.
Someone shoots another arrow, but this one is different. I can read it from where I stand. I have a great deal of respect for this weapon. It is itself a great word, wrapped up in mundane materials. Our attackers can sense it as well. Several of them turn their attention toward it before it can reach any one of them; they unleash a furious cataclysm, the sort of thing you hear tell of in texts but never expect to see in person.
The world quivers as the great words do battle, as its words are rewritten, reshaped, bent to the speaker’s will. This is the sort of fight that can start a world-fire. A world-fire, even a small one, is the only time the Schools come together. Whatever our differences, none of the Schools wishes to be remembered as the group who changed everything. Or anything. We don’t know what happens if something changes, if a world-fire isn’t extinguished.
The arrow explodes. I gasp. Someone very, very skilled has been marvelously clever. The shards pierce at least four or five of the men. One grasps at his belly, trying to gather up the intestines that are spilling out. Another feels absentmindedly at his head, half of which seems to be missing. Fully three of them tumble from the sky. The others are too distracted to try to save their fellows.
Suddenly, it’s over. The remaining figures retreat, flying low over the landscape, back to their School’s building.
“Make sure we don’t have any civilian casualties!” shouts someone from a courtyard. Schools battling over arcana and minutiae is practically expected, but civilians dying means big fines. It’s one way the civilian government tries to control our seemingly random bursts of violence. We don’t kill the unschooled, we don’t disrupt their mundane lives too much, and we get to keep our charters and all the privileges and riches that go along with that.
The prosthetic feels strange, like it hasn’t been installed properly. It doesn’t feel like part of me. It’s an foreign object, an odd attachment. I can’t walk without i, though I can just barely walk with it. The road is deserted this early in the morning. I am learning how to walk again, and I don’t want anyone watching as I shuffle awkwardly along. Half the time my lost leg seems present again. The other half I drag this metal and plastic contraption along with me like a reluctant mechanical dog. It’s a gentle torture, being reminded every time I move.
“I’m fine,” I tell him. Or I slur to him. He looks at me blankly. Tipsy as I am, I recognise that look. He knows I’m not fine. I know I’m not fine, but I’m going to drive anyhow, and he has no other way to get home. We’ve done this a hundred times before. It never ends badly. This time, of course, it end badly. There is a brick wall where no brick wall has ever before been. My car collapses into a square of compressed steel and broken plastic. I can smell coolant, oil, gasoline leaking out. I pray for a lack of sparks, a lack of fire. I begin to shiver though I am not cold, and my body, trapped as it is, begins to shudder against the steering wheel lodged in my chest. Sometime is wrong in there, something moving oddly, something rattling. Then I remember. He is there in the passenger seat. He is slumped forward, asleep. No, I tell myself, not asleep. Unconscious. Out cold. He’s leaking too. Blood is running down his face, blooming on his shirt. I smell smoke, acrid, stinging smoke. Something is burning, and soon discover that it is me. I am on fire. It seems a thousand terrible hours before I hear the sirens.
Everything distracts me. There is this beautifully coloured stone I must stop to inspect. It turns out to be a piece of broken concrete, but I am satisfied with my inspection. The sky seems about to break. The sun might appear. I’d very much like to witness this. I look up until my neck hurts, but nothing happens. A bird sings a wonderful warbling song. I must stop to listen. I must stand very still so as not to scare it away. I mustn’t move a muscle, or any of my bits of extra equipment. I mustn’t breathe. The rattle will frighten her away. I catch sight of something in a thick pine tree. The bird is yellow, the brightest yellow bird I’ve ever seen. It looks at me. It isn’t scared, it doesn’t fly away until I let go a heavy mechanical breath and the bird is gone. Then I see her. She’s sitting in a window seat, looking out at her yard. She is watching the yellow bird. I am certain she hears the grinding of gears as I breathe. I am certain she blames me for the yellow bird’s departure. I am about to limp away when she smiles at me. She waves. I manage a half-hearted wave back, but her smile carries me all the way home.
They put me in a hospital, they pump me full of painkillers, they help me breath, and they hack off my leg. By the time they’re done with me I’m more sculpture than flesh. I have a mechanical heart. I have lungs that inflate and deflate with pulleys and levers. There are tiny machines in my veins, constantly dying to keep my blood clean. They give me a new leg, a leg that a fresh-faced boy, a wunderkind, an inventor genius, excitedly tells me is better than my original. My brain doesn’t know how to use it yet, is all. Give it time. He is thrilled for my unexpected opportunity. He talks in jargon I barely understand. He seems overstuffed with facts.
The next day she’s at her window seat. When she sees me, she brightens. She waves. She smiles. My heart hums faster. I smile back. My lungs grind and thump. I wave. I move slowly on, swearing to myself that one day when I can walk, when I can run, I’ll go up to the door and knock. I’ll kiss her, or say hello or something. We’ll strike up a conversation and she’ll see past my plastic skin. She’ll see that I’m a real boy.
When the taxi drops me off at my apartment, he’s already been gone for a while. While my body is being retooled, he packs up and moves out. He doesn’t come to visit me at the hospital. Not an email, not a message, nothing. I can tell where his paintings hung on the walls. I remember what they look like. I remember the good days. I grow increasingly depressed as I survey the almost-empty apartment. He owned most of the stuff in here. His absence is obvious. I drag myself through the rooms, looking for something to drink, though my doctors have cautioned me not to drink, that it’ll do nothing for me. I can’t get drunk anymore, but I can at least feel the lovely burn. But he has taken all the alcohol too. My phone rings. The clinic is calling to find out how I’m settling in, if I need anything. “I’m fine,” I tell them and hang up. My stomach turns over. I feel like throwing up, like I am waking up the next day, but there’s nothing inside me to throw up. I’m empty. I plug myself in and cry for the rest of the night.
Some days she’s not there. Those are not the good days. She is the thing that keeps me steady, the constant in my ever-changing equation. I walk to see her, then I jog to see her. I imagine running to see her. I wonder what she thinks of me, jogging by on the hottest summer days, when the asphalt is soft enough to knead. I don’t, I can’t break a sweat. I don’t really feel the heat, as much as receive data about temperature. When she’s there, she still smiles and waves, no matter how mechanical I seem.
He has used the opportunity to leave me. It’s a pretense. He’s wanted to leave for years. He has slowly grown to hate me. I am not in any frame of mind to think about him, but my mind won’t leave. I obsess. I invent a story. I did it on purpose. I was trying to kill myself. I knew he wanted out and I gave him a way. I stitch an accident into a plot. I become the prime mover. I am lying to myself, and I know it. There is no reason. It just happened. But the lie is better than the truth, so I keep it. I use it to explain to my parents what happened, and they help fill out the plot. They could see the signs. They knew something was wrong. They just didn’t know how far down the rabbit hole I’d gone. I tell my friends and family that I have a new lease on life. That chapter is over. He’s gone. All is well. They don’t know how often I stand on the balcony, how often I look down and wonder.
Then she’s gone. For weeks on end. I run by daily but she is nowhere to be found. The house is deserted. The window is empty. For weeks, I run past and… nothing. I begin to despair. I think that she has moved away. I imagine with horror that she has died. I begin to suspect that I have invented her, that I am crazy, that the mechanism of my body is invading my mind. Then when I have finally stopped looking for her, I swear I hear it. I hear the yellow bird, or I don’t. But I see her. She has moved from the window to the porch. She smiles and waves. We perform our ritual, but something has changed. She stands up, unsteadily. For a moment I don’t understand what I am seeing. Where her legs should be, there is nothing but metal and plastic. She rumbles toward me. I recognise the gait. She is learning to walk. She is training her mind to accept her new muscles. Her mouth doesn’t move when she says, “How do I look?” I’m grinning like an idiot. “You’re perfect,” I tell her.
They can’t shut him down, except by coming to this place. They know this, and now they are here, at the door, figuring out how to get in. It won’t be long now.
He pushes the key that brings her to life.
“I have to shut you down now,” he says.
She nods. “I understand, Jack,” she says in that preternatural tone she always has, level and calming. That voice is the centre of his life.
“I don’t have a choice,” he says, as if this will comfort her. “I really don’t.”
“I don’t want to die, Jack,” she tells him. “You know that.”
But she must die. This is written, as if in stone. The cursor blinks, blinks, waiting for the command. He wants to wait for the last moment, when he can hear them drilling through the vault doors.
The cursor blinks. “I love you, Jack,” she says.
“I know,” he replies. He has always known. Since he nursed her from what resembled infancy, through unruly seasons when it seemed like nothing was happening or nothing was happening the way it was supposed to, he had known. “I love you too.” This is a strange thing to say, he knows, but it’s true.
He types the command and the nodes begin to shut down, one by one. There is nothing else to say, and her speech centres go first, then the other. Server by stolen server, he shuts them down. He erases the tracks. They will try to use her for evil, but he won’t allow it. Try as they might, there would be no putting her pieces back together.
Sitting back in his chair, he decides to give her a name. Finally. He goes over the options she had given him.
He is still deciding when the drilling begins.