My hand is seamed with quartz and gravel. It used to have folds of skin a witch could trace. No fingernails now, only the squares I scratched with a rusty blade for some reason I’ve long since forgotten.
I kneel in the jungle. Snakes slither between my stone toes, thinking me nothing more than an outcrop, a relic; maybe they’re right to think that. There’s not much left of me these days.
I watch fires ripple in the clearing. Men crouch, honing weapons, unspooling magical blooms and charges and other arcane things that speak to some deeper part of me. Imperial Trading Company men, for the most part, joined by a smattering of the Half-God’s zealots.
These latter ones, I see their frozen faces and golden eyes as they watch the Company men hoot and holler, throwing up straw dummies to tear them down again with the latest piece of tech devised by the Company’s research division. They drag a pig from the supply wagons and burst it with projectiles from a shoulder-mounted weapon which spits in a human HUT! They impress themselves with these displays.
Any morale they have they owe to the Half-God’s rampant propaganda machine. I know this because I am told. I appreciate the irony.
These men whoop and prance in their immaculate blue uniforms. They laugh. The sound fascinates me; you don’t hear it in the Chemist’s camp. You just don’t. But they are all too green, too wet. There is no such thing as a veteran, not out here. The equation is simple: you come up against the Chemist and you die.
Or you end up like me.
I take one hand in the other and unscrew it. Inside my hollow wrist is a padded pocket. A mantis scuttles out, tethered to me by a chain as fine as hair but stronger than anything I could name. It scurries up my arm, across my cheek and props on the tip of my nose.
“Time now,” it clicks. “You go.”
Orders straight from the Chemist.
I unclip the chain and lift the mantis to a nearby tree.
It clicks again, scrubs its mandibles with a hooked limb. I don’t have a name for it. I called it Peter once, but it seemed to dislike that so I never tried again. I think it’s like me, a convert, although I couldn’t say for sure. Captain Collis assigned me to it a few months back, conveying its superior rank in no uncertain terms. My first instinct was to crush it, just to see what would happen, but those kind of impulses are bleeding away, becoming easier to ignore every day. Soon there won’t be anything left, which I suppose is the whole point.
I count almost fifty men around camp. The Company men thrum with magical tech. At least twenty of them are heavy infantry, and five of the zealots unmistakably Core Disciples, maybe even two of those fully-fledged Seed Gods. Cities have fallen to less manpower than this.
When I’m done, they dangle from trees, smear the walls of their tents, lie smoldering in fires that throw up an acrid tang to send the penned animals wild.
I splash to the creek and slop water over me to wash the blood away, otherwise the flies will come crawling. A severed leg floats past me, heading south, heading home, where the memories are dying slowly and me too far gone to miss them.
“Tell me about her.”
“I think you know who I mean.”
“No,” I say. “Who?”
“Come now. Let’s not waste time on this little charade again.”
“I honestly have no idea who you’re talking about.”
An academic sigh. Parental disappointment. “Do you honestly believe there is anything to be gained by withholding? It only retards the process, and I can assure you there is nothing you should want more than a smooth, seamless transition.”
I have seen what happens to discards, those who fight the process. They are lead to the base of the mountain, where the Chemist is building something I have neither the capacity nor the inclination to understand. But I have ventured close enough to learn that stone can scream.
The psychiatrist flicks lint from his lapel. The spherical room bulges around us, a slit of jungle visible through a door-like opening in this bubble between worlds. Oversized dragonflies tick against the glass sleeve of a solitary lamp.
“Think of the memories as impurities in your blood,” he says. “And think of this room as a sweat-box. When you convey the memories to me they are drawn to your skin like sweat, then washed away.” He claps his hands. “And you are clean! So.” He drops his pen to the pad on his knee. “Tell me about her.”
He calls it withholding. The truth is, I just can’t recall enough about her. Maybe I’ve already said too much in this confessional and the important parts have already been stripped away. I can’t remember. Of course I can’t. If you give these trained interrogators enough to grip they’ll tear the whole memory out from the roots. But I recall a closed eye, a sleepy smile, and my lips pressed to the warm, sweet-oil pocket of skin between brow and hairline, and I know that is something worth holding onto.
The psychiatrist frowns. Behind him is a photograph of dumpy dour relatives with flat faces. He must have brought it all the way from home. He flips between the pages of recall I’ve offered up today. “Your progress is slowing. This will not do.”
He tears the pages from his notebook, folds them, secures them with a tin clip.
“Everything has a purpose here,” he says, tossing my memories in a box along with hundreds of other bound notes. “Everything is replaceable. You would do well to remember that.”
When I step back out into the jungle the line of animates extends away through the trees. I see a hundred creatures like me, waiting for a chance to purge every last drop.
There are quarries beyond the rim of the camp, great concavities in the hillside where the stone is cut and crushed and molded into shape. Between confessionals I either fight in the jungle or I work here alongside hordes of other animates, all of us tearing down chunks of the very thing we are now.
The jungle has become an abattoir; the Company and the Half-God combine to send endless tides of soldiers north against the Chemist, and those not killed end up here in camp, remaining physically human for as long as it takes to source good stone and invoke the powers.
The appetite for stone is so insatiable that rich veins of gold are ripped down and tossed in a pile which grows daily, untouched. If ever the empire hoped to understand what the Chemist is truly doing out here, that discard pile of unimaginable wealth is proof they never will.
“Tell me about the first time you performed,” the psychiatrist says (not the same one, a different one—this is later that night; the lights burn continuously in the confessional).
“Um....” He consults his colleague’s notes. “Ah, yes, at the Clarevonne. I understand you were a keen student of drama, and enrolled there before the war. So, tell me about your first performance.”
The idea of me being some kind of aspiring thespian is long gone, but I can picture the incident he mentions. “It was terrible. I dressed in these baggy clown pants my mother gave me. I don’t know where she got them. I wore a giant red tie with white polka-dots, and I pranced around on stage like a chicken.” The memory squirms, fighting. “We decided to end the performance by throwing pies at each other. I don’t think the audience knew what to make of that. We ruined the stage curtains, these lovely velvet drapes, and got in a lot of trouble for that.”
“Good, good.” His pen scratches across the page. “When you say your mother gave you those pants to wear, do you remember anything else about her?”
All I have is the faintest notion of her clinging to the memory of those ridiculous pants. Then nothing, just a placeholder for the concept of motherhood. That too begins to fade. “I’ve already spoken at length about her.”
“Hmm, yes, yes, it appears you have.” He taps his lips. “What else can you tell me?”
“Anything. Anything at all.”
“I can’t remember anything else.”
“Alright.” He consults his notes again and sees something that makes him brace himself. “Alright, now what about her?” He leans forward, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Some other woman, I believe. What can you tell me about her?”
By waiting outside the confessional bubble long enough I see one of the mechanical pygmies come out with a box full of notes. Notes about me, among others. I follow the creature through the jungle to the decrepit remains of the town called Jasper. Snaggle-toothed streets missing cobbles, vine-choked bricks and mortar crumbling slowly back into the earth.
The little steel marionette clumps down a set of stairs to a cellar door. I wait behind a segment of wall, listening to the plink plink plink of its footsteps fade. When it returns to the sunlight it no longer has the box.
I squeeze down the steps, my shoulders gouging plaster from the walls. The door is reinforced steel with no handle. I drum. Some kind of magic grease covers it. I try to drive my fist through it and only succeed in powdering two of my fingers.
We all sleep hunkered down in the jungle. Us animates, I mean. The rest of the men dream in bunk beds stacked inside barrack-bubbles, while the Chemist and his inner circle share a private complex hanging from the edge of reality like a crooked thumb. This is why the Company never finds him, with their scatter-gun shelling. The entrance to his quarters is reinforced by hex on hex, and this world has no claim on anything that lies beyond that.
The rest of us sleep standing up, like horses. A stranger might think himself come across acres of termite mounds spread through the jungle. You can tell the newer converts by the fact they talk in their sleep. It’s their humanity bubbling away. Early on there is just so much of it to vent. They spend all day recounting everything they remember, everything they know, and at night it all blows away in clouds of turquoise spores. It’s beautiful to see.
Tonight I don’t sleep, just stand there thinking about that door.
She lives beyond there. All I have is a closed eye, my lips on her skin. Over and over. They kept me in solitary for my first two weeks here to soften me up. Total darkness. I retained a shred of sanity by plucking a button from my shirt and tossing it away, then scrabbling on hands and knees to find it again, over and over and over.
The shelling starts sometime during the night. Arcs of orange, whistling, followed by cataclysmic roars and spectral fire tearing through the jungle. Birds and lizards vaporize in puffs of dust, while the trees are left untouched. The Chemist and his men are safely ensconced where the shelling can’t reach them. But in the morning I come across a smoking pair of boots draped in trousers, a button shirt and a sweat-stained cap. A book lies in the dirt.
Such mishaps are not uncommon.
“Tell me something.”
“I noticed my left wrist was loose last night, so I unscrewed it and found an insect inside.”
“You mean your navigator? You’ve had that since the beginning.”
“But I don’t remember ever seeing it before.”
“Well, I can assure you it is standard issue. Nothing to be alarmed about, in itself, however in perusing your file I see no reason for knowledge of your navigator to be missing. Hmm. This is troubling.”
“Well, animates who withhold for too long have been known to develop a form of dementia. They forget things they should know.”
“Isn’t the whole point of this to forget?”
“No. The point is to have the memories bled, like a poison from the brain. This form of dementia locks them away. They become... inaccessible.” The psychiatrist with the friendly face writes something in his notes. “Do you often find yourself confused as to where you are?”
“I get déjà vu all the time.”
“That is normal, all part of the process. I mean confusion as to your purpose, what we are doing here.”
“How would I know?”
He steeples his fingers. “Focus on the One True Purpose. Work back from there, identifying and scrutinizing each facet of your existence here. If at any point you find yourself at a dead-end, unable to continue, return to me immediately.”
He tries to reassure me with a smile. I see his eyes tick down to his notes, his smile tighten, and I know I’ve been told this before.
But I don’t remember.
They draw us into formation for the latest crossing.
This is in the town square, in Jasper, because we need this much open space to accommodate us. I count over four hundred animates on one side of the square, with twice that many men on the other. A covered canopy shields the Chemist and his retinue from the sun. He sits on a throne of carved diamond, naked and strangely featureless save for long blonde hair, almost a clay prototype of everything that’s followed. His sons stand around him in their immaculate suits and black satin waistcoats, their oil-slick hair glistening.
A bizarre distortion ripples in the centre of the square. Purple, pink, and silver. The Chemist leans across to Norton, his eldest son, and whispers something. Norton steps forward and orders a group of technicians to attend to the disruption.
They circle it and probe with electric-blue hands, sinking fingers into the ripple, straining elbows and shoulders until chunks of color come away like rotting boards to reveal a golden sheen. Another group of technicians are busy assembling a cast iron apparatus nearby. Cogs and joints squeal. They adjust a brass gramophone horn. One of them buries his head inside that and yelps loud enough to jump the needle on an attached meter. He gives his colleagues a thumbs-up.
I have seen this ritual many times before.
A group of five animates shuffles forward to be tethered to the apparatus via cables anchored to sockets in the base of their stone spines.
The mantis on my shoulder whirs. “Our time. Should be us.”
“I haven’t purged the memories yet.”
“You stall. You scared.”
“What’s there to be afraid of? The next world can’t be any worse than here.”
“Then why? Been too long.”
“I don’t know.”
“Almost done. Have to be. Finish quick and we go.” The mantis sways in the breeze. “Otherwise total waste.”
Each of the five animates hold their own mantis pilots in their hands. A couple of burped words from the technicians and the mantises are encased in pearly bubbles that could survive a direct hit from a Company shell. Everyone pauses, looks to Norton, who flaps his hand impatiently.
The five animates clump into the golden nebula and vanish. The ends of their anchor cables float inside the distortion, dipping in time to a rolling gait. Then one slackens and drops to the ground. The technicians squawk and dive on it with knives.
My mantis clicks. “He not ready.”
Indeed. Still too human.
The severed cable hisses across the ground to be swallowed by the glamour.
“Tell me something.”
“I saw a failed crossing today.”
“Yes. I saw it too. Nasty business, but preventable.” The psychiatrist (the one who loses patience with me easily) cracks his knuckles and leans heavily on one knee to stare me in the face. “It is the memories that tether you here. That and your old body, which we have long since freed you of. Some think they have fully confessed when in fact they have not. They put themselves forward for crossing and... well, we saw the consequences of that hubris for ourselves today, did we not?”
“What happens to them?”
“Best not go into detail. Suffice it to say, the Khoba-Hai do not tolerate human interlopers, even representatives of the Chemist. They believe humanity to be an infection, the carrying of which violates the terms of our agreement with them. But you know all this already, correct?”
I catch the canny glint in his eye. “Correct,” I lie. I failed the test of working back from the One True Purpose. But I keep that to myself.
The man says, “The final shard of memory can sometimes be so difficult to detect. It is like a glass splinter in the sole of your foot that you can never find. I gave that particular animate his clearance yesterday. I detected nothing left. Apparently I was wrong.”
“Are you in trouble for that?”
“Trouble is a relative term. Certainly do not worry yourself on my account.”
“What’s your name?” I ask.
He stiffens at the question. “That is none of your concern.”
“I only want to know your name.”
“And create more work for one of my assistants, when the time comes to perform the final wipe of your memories of this camp? No, I think not.”
“Tell me about her,” he says. His voice is sharp now. He hasn’t even bothered to open his notebook for me.
“Her!” They don’t even have a name.
I blink and shrug.
There’s a timepiece on the shelf, an antiquated series of runes and rails and counterweights from a place I’ve long since given away the name of. The psychiatrist turns to it sharply. “This is your penultimate session,” he snaps. “Either you come to me tomorrow with that final nagging scrap you seem so eager to cling to, or else I inform Norton that you are a dud. And you know what happens to duds.”
“But I still have more to offer.”
“No. No. I have picked you dry, my boy. You have nothing left for me, nothing, except her. Even then she is but a sliver of a memory. I can feel that. Would you risk everything for such a flimsy recollection? Are you that stubborn?”
His rage frightens me. I almost blurt out the last thing I can truly call myself. Maybe he senses that, because he flashes yellow teeth at me.
“Yes, say it. Say it!”
“I really wish you had told me your name.”
I hear the squeak of rusting joints well before I see the mechanical dwarf round the alley mouth carrying another box of notes. I remain hidden until I hear it stop at the base of the stairs. When I step out I see a square of light falling across flagstones beyond the door. The sun is behind me, and my shadow darkens the threshold.
The pygmy drops the box and spins, but I am too quick. I barrel down, catch it inside the room, and smash it to pieces before it can swing the door shut. Even so, the magic grease on the door must sense me because the steel slab begins to grind closed behind me. I grab the iron skull of the pygmy and wedge it between door and jamb, leaving enough space for me to pry my fingers in and rip the door open when I’m finished here.
The room beyond is long and low and stacked with endless crates full of notes. Brick upon brick upon brick of memory spoken, transcribed, and left here to gather dust. She is in here somewhere. I rummage in the first crate and accidentally split the wood with my hands, spilling pages on the floor. My fingers are too blunt to re-gather all of them. I scrape the clip off one and paw it open.
I see a name (Dr. Hemwood) and two numbers: HO 6445 (a date, maybe?) and 20031 (ID number), followed by scribble.
“My dad used to take me camping. I always enjoyed that. Two (2) of us (me and my brother, Simon) and dad. He kept a sack of bottled beers in the stream to keep them cool, and one night he gave me a bottle to drink (my first ever) while he let my brother only take a sip (he was younger than me). I remember thinking it was no big thing. I stole another when dad was asleep, thinking he’d never notice, but he did, and he-”
The scribble continues overleaf and I can’t turn the page.
I open another one.
“Dr. Francis / HO 6445 / 21118:
“My friend and I, we lost touch. Don’t think it was anything in particular, just growing apart. Sad, when you think about it. Friends for so long, closer than kin, then bam, nothing. How does that happen?”
“Dr. Bell / HO 6445 / 2—-3:” Some of the numbers are smudged.
“It was the first time I ever went to Old Pope. I know it’s just across the water by ferry, but it seemed a whole different place to me, you know? The people all talk different there, snootier, maybe. I never liked them. But the buildings were beautiful, real classy compared to what I’m used to.
“I saw a parade for the Half-God there. What colors. Fuck that guy and all, but he knows how to turn it on for his people. You can respect a guy like that, even if he is a queer. I can say that to you, right? I mean, you got no love for him, either, right? Say, can I get one of those? [animate requests a cigarette – concerning that it fails to realize it lacks the capacity to smoke => recommend twice-daily confessional]”
Every word of it bursts inside me. I recognize things—places, names, feelings—in every scrawled sentence. My own memories ripped from me have left a void, and this trickle only serves to emphasize what I’ve lost. None of it is me, either. None of it sings to me. I might be Animate 2—-3 (there is a number scratched in the stone below my left shoulder blade which I’ve never been able to see –- the psychiatrists all use it to identify me), but because I don’t want to be I’m not. I have nothing to base that on. In the perfect dark you are whoever you want to be.
I plough through other crates, scanning for any word that meshes with the image I keep, that last piece of me. Nothing. I find memories of conscription, of landing in the swampy coastal deltas, sex (tender, furious, and a bit of both), secret shames, regrets, the pleasures and pains of family. I find endless accounts of women; wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers, but none of them are her. I know that.
And when I see the size of the room, realize that all the crates here couldn’t possibly hold the transcribed lives of the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of animates that most likely came before me, I know she’s not here. Maybe they burn everything when the room fills up. Maybe she’s gone. Maybe she never existed.
A strange compulsion keeps me flipping through page after page after page. Each memory sticks to me even if I don’t want it to, so that by the time I accept I’ll probably never find her the mélange of memories is so thick I can barely think straight. The seams knit, the pieces melt into a coherent whole, and there’s a story to me once again.
“Are you ready to confess your final thoughts?”
“No. About something else.”
“There is nothing else but her! Did you not listen to a word I said yesterday? This is your final chance to prove to me here and now that you still have some value to our operation.”
“I found where you keep the notes.”
A pause. “Notes? What are you talking about?”
“The notes you make to steal our memories. I found where you keep them.”
“You mean the repository?”
“Whatever you call it. I found it.”
The man licks his lips. “The location is hardly a secret. But the door is sealed against the likes of you. You cannot simply open it.”
“I waited until one of your mechanical slaves opened it and I smashed him to pieces. The door tried to shut but I propped it open with his skull. When I was done I gathered all the pieces of him and threw them down the dry well in Jasper.”
“Are... are you trying to provoke me? Is this some kind of a joke?”
“I found boxes and boxes of your notes inside. I read as many as I could. I was looking for her, but I never found her. I guess you destroy all the old notes, once you run out of room.”
The man flings his notepad to the floor and tries to stand, but I take him by the shoulders in my chipped hands and shove him back into his chair. He shrieks in pain, but the door to the confessional is sealed against a recent plague of mosquitoes. There is no one to hear him.
“Pick up your pad and write what I just said.”
He stares at me, eyes greasy with pain. I squeeze his shoulder, hearing ligaments creak, and he screams again.
“Pick up the pad, or I’ll tear you apart.”
He knows I can do it, too. He whimpers, one arm limp, the other hooking the pad and dragging it up onto his thigh. He fumbles in his breast pocket for a new pen.
He does, quickly. I read through his blurring fingers and see he has captured everything I said, almost word for word. I release him and he flops in his chair. “Finished,” he gasps. “This will be the end of you.”
“Better some kind of end than a lifetime of nothing.”
I am walking through the jungle.
Norton and his two brothers keep pace, surrounding me in a triangle. Their immaculate suits look misplaced here. A rogue branch slaps Norton’s head and he smoothes the oiled hair along his scalp. A single mountain peak fills the sky before us.
“I never liked that cretin Bailie anyway,” Norton says, glancing at me with a smirk.
“What happened?” I ask.
“You don’t know?”
“I remember hurting the doctor, but nothing about our conversation.” I fumble. “Maybe I was trying to escape.”
Norton’s eyes cut to me again, sly, and he smiles, revealing perfect teeth. “If you don’t recall the particulars, then good for you.”
The three of them chuckle.
The past comes to me as we walk. I remember simple things, like drawing a picture or climbing the sagging tower over the Crocodile Channel. I remember laughing with friends and punching someone in the nose hard enough to spray blood down his shirt. I remember the smells of the bazaar in Diaspora, the taste of spiced manaka meat, the first time a woman made me quiver (and the first time a man did, too).
I remember endless combinations of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. Children, too. I remember being hired and fired and hauled up in court under charges of rank embezzlement. I remember the fear of my first landing on the beach, of wondering how or when the Chemist would come for us. I remember insubordination, cowardice, heroism and finally, capture.
Most of all, I remember a closed eye, the scent of hair and warmth and being home.
Anything that comes next can’t be so bad.