NOTES: This, THIS is the Fiction Project of Death. Now that this is done, I promise I'll get back to Between Vermin.
Because there have been some questions on the subject, and because I can't for the life of me find any way to include it in the story itself without sounding contrived, I shall here define somnes as: a class of servile androids employed by the peasant class of Ibes-Orès and elsewhere in the country of Phae. It's basically regional slang for robots. Also, there are really only two classes in this particular city: town (peasant) and Elder (elite). The Elder are basically a bunch of crusty scientist/philosophers who give a damn about nothing save the pursuit of Answers.
The character connections are as follows: Anth is the first incarnation of Samuel Hellar; Goh is a previous (and fairly young) incarnation of Hugo Pang; the lab girl is a previous incarnation of Micah Barrett; the Doctor is a previous incarnation of Kinnith Flagg; Ched is Ched. This is the tell-all on why Hellar and Hugo are so darned messed up, and why Kinnith can be so manipulative, though Mic does tame him considerably over time.
Enough of this drivel. Bigass thankee-sai to my ever-conscientious (if tragically three-dimensional) beta, Seath. And if anyone would like to hear the music that bred this thing, I'd suggest Hawksley Workman's Paper Shoes, the Mars Volta's Inertiatic ESP, Matthew Good Band's Rat Who Would be King, and Radiohead's Paranoid Android, though the latter two were mostly subconscious.
WARNINGS: Disturbing images, violence, angst. No swearing for once, unless you count "screw".
SCRATCHED ON THE SIDE
when I was the rat, the rat who would be king
I imagined ashes and us alone, always us alone
and I've waited on the sidelines all this time
and I've a grenade with out names scratched on the side
but that's just love
and you know that love's not enough
-The Matthew Good Band-
I made a friend yesterday, in the alley behind Ched's bar. He was covered in bandages and asking questions. He was "late again" and "they were gone" and there were ten little holes in his shoulder bandages where his nails had dug in. Most of all, and apparently worst of all, he was lost.
I asked him all the whos and wheres of functional conversation, but he just bent until his body collapsed in on itself, and I was talking to a rag-wrapped woodbug.
Let me make it clear, good Doctor, that I've won.
I never did get the specifics of this project you guinea pigged me for. I heard, at least, that you chose Goh and me for it because your errand boys saw us dancing. One warm night we'd climbed the ruins in the lot beside our home and listened to the reed music drift up from the square. Goh frowned and would not stand for the longest time, but eventually I dragged him into a clumsy kind of waltz.
Maybe the boys had never seen somnes dance or kiss before, had never considered the mechanics of metal on metal. And maybe they ran back up the hill to your lab and asked how machines could love, and you pinched your chin, poked your glasses a little farther up your nose.
You Elders only ever do one thing where you're short an answer. You try to derive one.
So some cash for our master, and we were yours for the toying and tinkering. We marched on out of the valley and into the Elders' complex just outside the city walls. I sat in your office and paid more attention to the deep scoop of your hairline than the poetry you spouted. You asked me at the end if I would die for Goh.
I answered like a young girl in love, because back then I was both. With a handshake and a lipless grin you led me to the lab.
All your poets said the same thing: if it's true, love is enough.
You sent us back to the valley, I to my street corner, Goh to his palace. Ibes-Orès hummed with news of the upstart somne noble, Elder-sponsored and firmly placed in the city centre.
I found Ched's inn about a month into the project, after my dozenth attempt to see Goh. A run-in with one of the estate guards had exposed a line of rivets on my forehead, and Ched narrowed his eyes at the sight of it, but he gave me work anyway, and a length of red fabric to cover the wound and what you'd left of my hair.
He called me "lad" and I thought about correcting him. Considering the job your lab girls did on my body, though, I wasn't sure what to ask for. What do you call a sexless stack of gears, anyway? What's my title, other than "it", "thing"?
Pretty soon Ched stopped referring to me entirely, after he sacked me for attacking customers. He banned me, threw me out the back door, and from there I made it no farther than the alley.
I get the idea some time has passed since then - years, maybe. Ched's gone more salt than pepper by now. For the most part, the alley was mine alone, a kingdom of trash boxes, oily cobbles and a dishwater river every night around closing time. Just me, my body's growing collection of bends and dents and stripped wires, and your monstrous little parting gift, that virus of a program your lab lackeys installed. All its clicks and grinds, its stupid tinny wheedling, and one word spelled out across my vision: EDIT.
EDIT EDIT EDIT.
I decided not to move until I felt like dancing.
I think I've at least figured out this program of yours, this EDIT. It was really a threefold ass-kicking. I call the first fold "command and suggest". It was what got me fired.
And yesterday it was suggesting I steal my new friend's blanket, insisting it could cut the chill, temperature presets be damned, when Ched poked his face out the back window and called me into the bar. He said that some skirt wanted a word with me, and that if I broke any more of his tables or chairs he'd dismantle me himself. I promised to behave.
The room was all but deserted when I dragged myself in. Ched paused from buffing beer mugs and pointed to a table in the back corner. I recognized one of your lab girls, a thin, mousefaced thing, all crossed legs and restless hands. Beside her on the mottled leather sat a pair of woolen bundles. I dragged a barstool over.
"Anth?" she said.
She had a look on her face that people tended to get around me, one like she'd just been socked in the jaw and was tonguing the inside of her mouth in search of loose teeth. She replaced it quickly with a stock smile. One of her hands crept up to her left cheek, then dropped back to her lap as she caught herself.
"Pretty, isn't it?" I said.
"Hmm?" Another idiot grin.
I rapped a knuckle on the skinless frame of my own cheek, and stuck out a wire-studded tongue. Her smile faltered.
"What does he want?" I asked.
"'He?' Oh, the Doctor, oh no. He's not - he didn't send me."
She fingered a squat glass of what looked like wine. Cheap wine, if I know Ched. I held the edge of the stool and leaned in a little closer.
"Why are you here, then?"
"Because I don't like this one. This project, it's cruel and impossible. He separated you and Goh to make a point that's, it's unmakeable. He thinks he can qualify love. I don't like it."
"Good for you," I said.
She looked away, smoothed her skirt, fidget-fidget. "I'd like to help, if you'd let me. I can get you in to see Goh."
EDIT said: throw her glass at her.
She ducked just in time, and when Ched lumbered over, red-faced and rolling up his sleeves, lab girl pacified him with a fistful of coins. He knocked me one upside the head, anyway, on his way back to the bar.
Her hand took up an oh-my position just below her collar. "Was… was that it? Is it always so -?"
"Abrupt? Violent? Irrational? What, you people made it and you don't even know what it does? You stuck me with some beta-demo-prototypical mindfuck one-point-oh?" Voice pitch soaring - I waited for Ched to start throwing darts at me.
"Shh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have… please, just listen to me."
I backed off, sat up straight.
"Tomorrow's the Aumstide Festival," she told me. "The Doctor got drawn to organize the Dolls' Procession. He's going to end it at Goh's estate. And he signed his whole staff on as dolls, whether we volunteered or not."
She hoisted the woolen lumps onto the table and pushed them toward me. A pale green tassel poked through the folds of the smaller package.
"The Procession is set to pass by here an hour before evening-meal. Goh will be in the estate's main hall, at the back and centre. The dolls are allowed to address or perform for him one-on-one. That's as close as I can get you."
She watched me with those watery brown eyes. I looked down at her hands, and fancied I could see the crossed planks and puppet strings she had stolen, or maybe just borrowed from you. It's what you get, Doctor, for filling your lab with beautiful young women. Little girls all want happy endings.
I reached for the bundles. "Thank you."
EDIT's second fold was memory recall, the this-was-your-life feature. Just in case I forgot who I "died" for.
Lab girl left and I went back to the alley. I was poking around in the crates and trash boxes, looking for a dry spot to store my packages, when my friend shifted and something clattered to the ground. I stepped over and picked it up - half a broken pair of scissors. A scissor, if you will.
Its weight in my hand, the shape of its ring and blade, was enough to trigger second fold EDIT. Steam and concrete gave way to our old master's house, where Goh shapes cotton patches for my needle and thread, where his jaw juts forward from task-start to task-end, where I smooth the creases in the fabric and in his face. A tease, a fleeting glimpse of things lost. Then back to the gutter kingdom.
I noticed then the scraps of bandage strewn about the place in wormy clusters. The strips still clinging to my friend's body had been pulled and hacked at, exposing pink-black inkblot skin. His chest hardly moved at all.
I tucked the scissor in between the packages, and kept on looking for a place to put everything.
"Oi!" Ched hung out the back window again. "You got lucky, bolthead."
I gave him my blankest look.
"Your girly came back an' ordered you a room for the night. Twenty-five, up on the third floor." He threw a keycard at my feet.
The third fold was the simplest.
Even simpler than the body you boiled me down to, this shapeless, sexless mold. Subject requires only a body of basics, right? I suppose you suspected you could even fall for plastic breasts, so best not to take the risk.
The costume though, the doll suit - there was a curve factory, a fantasy of pinch and round. Its stiff foam hips jutted outward and upward. They threw the skirt into a rippling red parasol. I tried the thing on in the face of a tedious night, and courted the mirror well into the morning, an embroidered ship on clockwork seas.
The big spit-and-paper head was stuffy, and looking through the eyeholes did weird things to my optic systems, so I left it off for most of the night. Instead it played audience on the bed. It looked like it had something to say.
At four a.m. I stopped circling the room and sat down between the dresser and nightstand.
And soon enough: why don't you sleep?
The doll head's lips hadn't moved. And there was really only one voice dumb enough to ask the question. I wrinkled my nose.
"Shut up, EDIT."
You should sleep. Maybe a drink would help. Or a snack - you should eat.
At least it was only suggesting. Things tended to get messy when it came to commands. Have you ever tried to ingest whiskey without a digestive tract?
You should warm up. It's so chilly in here.
I screamed and pounded at my forehead. Someone in the room beside mine thumped the wall and threatened something unintelligible.
A minute passed, than another - blessed silence.
My friend's scissor, now teetering on the edge of the dresser, caught my eye. I retrieved it and ran my fingers across all its rust and pits. Engraved in the blade was the word - name, I suppose - "Unna".
Isn't that funny, Doc? That man had half-scissors with a woman's name etched in the blade. Sewing scissors, a housewife's tool. Makes you wonder just who was "gone", who he was "too late" for. Bet it grinds the cogs in your big Elder brain.
I found a stray thread at the costume's bust and sawed through it with the scissor, then did the same to errant strings at the shoulder and waistline. I couldn't get to them all, though. So many were thin, almost invisible, twisted into ropes and hooked over the tops of the walls, through gaps where the ceiling should have touched but didn't.
I held the scissor's tip to my throat for a moment. Nothing. The point pressed into my skin, persistent, but too dull to break the surface.
My hands snapped open and the scissor dropped between my legs. I let my head roll back and bump the wall. Foiled again. Trying was really a formality by then.
Because the third fold was the simplest and the worst. A combination of repair system upgrades and firstfold EDIT commands meant to sustain me for the duration of the project - in other words, as long as your whim dictated - it was the one uncuttable string, and it went straight back into my body.
Tick-tick, another hour. I squirmed and hugged myself, I licked my lips, I yawned. It's not fair, Doctor. None of the other somnes wanted these things. All the good boys and girls got masters and shifts and other somnes to keep them company, and they liked it, damn it. They liked it.
Me? I had an alley and a chatty parasite. And now I had a date with my love.
And surely, surely love is enough.
The next afternoon all that remained of my friend were the bandage-worms and a row of scuffed cobbles leading further into the alley-maze. I toed a stringy looking rat on my way back into the bar, and it went scampering off with bandage-bits still stuck in its fur.
On my way through I swiped a fistful of brotweed nuts from the bowl on the bar, and was halfway out the door when Ched clamped a meaty hand down on my shoulder.
"Didn't I tell you not to leave any of your junk in the room?" he said.
He thrust the scissor at me, handle-first like a civilized man. I'd really meant to leave it there. I could have just told Ched to chuck it out. Instead I took it after a good minute of blank staring, and tucked it under the woolen cloak lab girl had given me. I turned to leave and two or three nuts clattered to the floor around my feet. Ched voiced a long-suffering sigh.
"Why do you do that?" he asked. "You know you can't eat them. I think you just do it to piss me off."
"Ah, the girly made you a payin' customer anyway. Go on, take 'em and get out."
"Oh, don't worry Cheddy. I'm out this time for good. Gonna live the high life. Gonna be a noble."
With a grunt and a shake of his head, he disappeared back into the inn. I strode out into the lane and started down the hill.
After two blocks I found what I was looking for, and ducked into an abandoned residence. The back half of the place had caved in, giving me a decent view of the sky above the rubble. I watched the grey deepen, then part in time for the fleshy sundown light to bleed through.
Somewhere up the hill a drumbeat started. The echo thundered down into the valley and coaxed a cheer out of the crowd.
The music swelled and faded, louder at every peak, as the Procession wound toward the city centre, but always the bass thrummed in the walls and floor, even in the piles of refuse. Everything moved.
I took off the cloak, unwrapped the head, and crept out through a hole in the side wall. I peered around the corner just as the first of the dolls rounded the bend. The masses roared and parted, pressing themselves into the gutters.
Once the flag bearers had passed, I lowered the doll head over my own and slipped through a gap in the crowd. I joined the line near the end of the Elder-employed dolls, where silk began to give way to faded cotton, even canvas.
If the music was loud on the sidelines, it was deafening in the thick of it. There was a hollow clanking beneath the beat, chains and bells and child-dolls with spoons and soup tins.
My feet found a tentative rhythm and crossed each other once, twice, fell into pace. They looped to the side and spun me around and I was part of it all, flowing forward and downward with the bass-fueled Procession.
The vendor's stalls started to clutter the roadway as we drove deeper into the city. Beads rattled and grills sizzled along with the master beat. Each dance step slid the doll head forward until the eye holes provided little more than a world-through-a-tube view. What light filtered through the holes highlighted the inverse doll's face. It smirked at me.
Something knocked against my thigh. My fingers pawed at the fabric, and encountered a ring of pitted metal. My friend's scissor had embedded itself in the folds-and-folds of silk - I couldn't seem to get rid of the thing. I suppose I could have dropped it then. I didn't, though. I just danced.
The road leveled out and smoke began to creep into the doll head. Incense and seared meat, throat-coating steam. The vendors' stalls, squeezed onto sidewalk continents and buried in customers. EDIT triggered a low grinding in my gut.
You should eat.
Instead I twirled.
I shuffled and swung my hips. The dress's lining stuck to my arms and legs and a fan began to whir at the back of my neck. I wanted to feel the heat. I wanted to taste, not process. I wanted to swim, drink, burn, screw, fly, pick the coils of smoke straight out of the air and pull until what's on the end comes spilling out and spreading through the valley, overflowing into your plastic houses, your tubes, and needles down your throat, around your neck, through your chest and everywhere your blood bubbles, Doctor. Then I want it all to stop.
By the time Goh's palace loomed over us, EDIT was firing off commands and suggestions for every pace and pose. So often, in fact, that the direct commands all managed to cancel each other out; left bumped right bumped left and I was back in line, the push and pull itself all part of the dance.
The pinhole eyes gave me a glimpse of plastic-grass lawns and pillars twined with metal creepers. We climbed the steps, passed under the concrete arch into that front hall, front cavern, and I realized this was farther than I'd ever been. EDIT always got me caught at the outer wall.
Inside all the dolls danced in lines, back and forth across the tiles. The Procession turned single file and zigzagged to the back of the room, where a mound of metal vines rose and twisted into a throne and stairs. There sat Goh, tiny in the distance, dwarfed by that seat, a dark dot bouncing off the edges of the eyeholes. EDIT threw a fit.
Shouldn't be in - you shouldshould get out of - getout-stayin line -
I bowled past the roof's zenith, tile to tile to tile. EDIT cranked the volume, and do you know Doctor, I never realized before than just how much it sounded like you.
Do youdo you think this will - solve your everythingyour - how do you plan to - getpast-getaround - get over -
I lurched and thrashed under the parasite's screaming. It was so loud something rattled in my head. So loud that static crept in at the edge of my vision and the contrast controls shorted, reducing the world to bright-dark blotches. Brightest, closest was the inverted doll's face, the molded concavity on the back of the mask. And I swear that the lips moved then. They spoke in your stupid grainy voice. They said:
You can'tfix - can't solve your - face you should just - he doesn'tdoesn't can't know you anymore -
But I was in the landslide of momentum, the wide uncontrolled slalom toward the back of the hall. All the twirling, barreling, stumbling steps to - to what? An end, a throne-topped metal lump, a pair of scissors slicing all the strings from my limbs.
When I reached the steps, back and centre, I broke away and curtsied to the guards. They bowed back, uncrossed their staffs and waved me through. If I'd had lungs, I would have held my breath.
The metal clonked underfoot as I climbed to him, my Goh.
At the top I paused. Goh was slouched in his chair, legs outstretched, chin propped up by his right hand, and a girl latched onto each arm. He looked down his nose at me and gave a curt get-on-with-it wave.
A twirl, four steps forward with as much hip as possible. I grabbed the throne's armrests - the guards shuffled and clinked behind me - and leaned forward. Goh recoiled.
"Here's your Anth." I tore the doll head off and sent it bonk-bonk-bonking down the vines. "Here's your love, your dear, your doll!"
One look at me and he went scuttling to the back of his seat. His eyes bulged, he clutched at his chest and choked on his next breath. For a second I was sure he recognized me; paths had reconnected, file directories had spilled open somewhere in him, and he was wondering how he'd ever been king without his queen.
But when I reached for him he ugh'd and backhanded my wrist. His face set in the socked-jaw look.
Love can stand a pair of orange-lipped mistresses, even a harem thereof. Love endures distance and empty heads. Doesn't it, Doctor?
And that's where it falls apart. That's where the beat stops and the mask slides off and there are two machines staring each other down, one broken and one whole. Your love, Doctor, is the fluff on a poet's feather pen. Mine is a scissor, dull and rusted, subject to bends and breaks, with nonsense scratched on the side.
A scissor buried in dress folds, with my finger hooked through the ring. I closed my hand around its base and brought the blade up through the underside of Goh's jaw. Straight through to where neck and skull meet, where a vital wire-or-six hook head-brain to body-brain, where the personality driver chugs away barring introduction of sharp objects.
I don't think there even were files to be reopened. You must have run a complete reformat on him. All for an Answer, for a big fat "HYPOTHESIS CONFIRMED" stamp at the top of your report. Why don't you qualify the licks of electricity that forked their way up the scissor to my hand, or the breath-over-bottle-top sound of Goh's failing vocal output? His eyes went mostly white as the pupils strained downwards, fixed on my face, on the naked frame and wires.
EDIT launched into an extended squeal. A grinding, popping, knocking sound came from somewhere around my left shoulder. It occurred to me then, Doctor, just what kind of man you were, what kind of rotten amusement you'd take from sticking EDIT's driver up there in my chest.
You sick bastard, you put it in my heart.
I yanked the scissor out of Goh's throat and rounded on the guards. Their crossbows twanged, and half a dozen arrows thumped into my chest and stomach. I pitched backward onto Goh's seat.
When the static cleared all I could see were the blurry-bright lines of Goh's legs. They still twitched. And I laughed, or rather, huffed my own little bottle-top hoot, because I could hear the guards clank and the crowd murmur, but over - or maybe under - everything there was - is - nothing.
Nothing, Doctor. No voice, no text, no stupid EDIT. One of the arrows had cleared my left shoulder. It's all I've wanted since you killed me, Doc. It's why I've won.
Feel free to qualify this as inadequacy of love. Me, I'm going to move all this to the backup drive and finish up while the guards are still poking and prodding Goh. I've got a scissor to my throat and no thirdfold EDIT to talk me down. All the strings and ropes save one are lying limp across the throne's armrest, and that last one's easy enough to cut.