She’s bending the strings of her third song when the soldiers’ eyes needle across her synthetic skin.
They’ve stopped; they never stop, not here. If they’re hoping she might lose her fingering, that she might tilt her head out of fear or supplication, that her song might be cut short by their mere presence—no. Fuck. Do goons feel something? Do state brutes resonate with anything like music?
Comrades have retreated indoors from the stinking rain. The water collects in the dented grooves of slanted Rococo tiles that bear a forgone artistry. The buildings shift sideways whenever a healthy wind blows, and their stuffed gutters release their floods onto the street. She knows it’s the sort of storm that will render a thousand people without homes. The wind will cave in old roofs and smash brittle brick and hollow out the chest of an anemic city that once stood proud. It’s buried by a heavy nostalgia, frozen in time.
The sweetness of her music has summoned a goodwill, her case bloated with coins and paper money and packaged food. She daydreams about a hot meal and a room out of the rain; she sings about places that don’t leak or smell of rot.
She’s soaked to the bone, and her fingers are numb to all but the faint pressure on the strings, but she feels good.
“Girl. What is that?”
Are they talking to her? There’s no reason to look up; the soldiers will find their entertainment either way. In between their unregulated breaks, they break people. The chrome dolls are here in the side district, combing the streets for unsavory ways to blow off steam. Their helmets are slick with rain, and their moldering hand-me-down vests are soaked through, and they’re carrying their weapons at the shoulder, a violent parade.
This is where they’ve found her: tucked in on a stoop, a waterlogged rat squeaking and begging scraps.
She weighs their boredom and wonders if the soldiers might retreat. In the depths of her unanchored soul, she knows these chances are slim, that creatures of violence can only be appeased by further violence. Jackboots don’t tire—they get frustrated, angered, pained. The longer she ignores them, the more their ruthlessness builds, until they’re screaming like a kettle. They’ll find their pound of flesh, and she prays to a fashionable god that they leave her hands and legs alone.
She counts down the seconds from the third verse to the bridge, backwards, and as her voice rises, a pair of boots pokes into view beneath her sodden cap.
“He asked you a question, comrade.”
Comrade? His voice is different. From the bowls of their periphery helmets, the soldiers speak as one. Their timbre is dictated by company logic; the same factory drawl parroted from training videos and squad captains. This one, he doesn’t sound like the others.
She looks up and coils the tension in her shoulders. The company men are standing back, giving her a wide berth as if she’s a rabid dog. One soldier remains, the respect of office. His fluted armor is gilded with a synthetic filigree. It’s a sign that’s powerful as nostalgia, a respectable attempt to emulate a past no one is alive to remember.
She pretends she can see his eyes through the helm. “It’s a song.”
That bit of shit-eating arrogance should earn her a broken jaw or a bent finger. The seconds tick by.
Curiosity finally wrests her attention away from the instrument and her fingers hover, the song lost forever.
“Anyone can fart out a song, pest. He was talking about the instrument.”
A frown crosses her unmolested face. She looks at the soldier, at the others. Her gaze drifts down the avenue, finds its place in the windblown trash. Nothing is as it was a few hours ago. The labyrinth has changed again, its bowels spooled and twisted. She picked this place because of its shadows because here there is no power; there aren’t even cable lines overhead because no one can afford the bills, so why should the company bother?
Her stomach rumbles, but it’s not hunger vibrating the asphalt. Somewhere in the city, behemoth tanks are rolling through, cracking the streets and turning longstanding towers concave.
“It’s a guitar, asshole,” she says.
The soldier kneels, and she recoils reflexively. A dog needs only be kicked once to remember.
“What is your name?”
She blinks black rainwater. The soldiers only steal and break arms. They don’t stop to make small talk. They don’t care about names.
Nervousness spreads through her chest, pouring into the crevices like liquid concrete. Battery acid leaks into her stomach. This is a creature of the golden company, not a dime store soldier. He is the propaganda claw.
There are other cretins on the street trying to stay invisible. The smartest have run away. The others clutch their stoops like gargoyles, hoping that the attention on her might grant them grace. The weather is unflinching: it worsens, it howls like a beast. Their factory smoke sky glows at the edges from a sun afraid to show itself.
“Sieg.” It’s not her real name.
“Sieg,” says the soldier. He reaches out. “May I?” Permission? He could undo her atoms with a breath.
He wants her to place the guitar in his hands. He wants her to willingly hand over the instrument. He wants her to watch him cradle the neck as he splits bowl and body, as he smashes the polished wood upon the pavement.
It’s like passing her baby for Solomon’s judgment, but she won’t get half.
This phantom holds her guitar—it shocks her that he knows how. He cradles the instrument, strums a clean chord. She imagines the reflexive shift of features behind the helmet, the look of concentration as he attunes his ears.
“My, my,” he says. “You’re either a gifted craftsman, or a proficient thief.”
“I’m no thief.”
The demons waiting in his shadow have moved on. Those buskers who chose to stay are facing the misplaced wrath of bored company dendrites. She tries not to listen to them break beneath boot and weapon, but the music is long gone.
There’s been no word of restarted recruitment, but news doesn’t spread like it once did. Since the fall of public subspace, the poor have found themselves in a second Stone Age. Without their access, the working class have become cattle braying against their masters’ prods. Company news serves as the Good Book, the entire city teetering at the edge of the pulpit.
Her golden master could reach into the network and find her real name. Maybe he already has. Who knows what it still says above her in the remnant? The network might list that she once had a dog, might say that she lived in [redacted] on [redacted] with loving parents long dead. Maybe there are pictures floating in company subspace. Maybe her old passwords are still alive in a dusty channel.
Behind the corporate paywall, it could say anything. The only information unlisted is what was never there, but they have her face and security number. Everyone exists, and no one does. Her digitized soul is a non-fungible artifact floating in the either, spared by the identity of the person who begs for dirty coins in a rainy alleyway.
She brings herself back.
“I’m not a thief,” she repeats, a fucking lie.
“No, you’re something worse.”
She squints at him through the sting of rainwater. She’s never spoken to a recruitment claw, never once guessed they were anything more than an arm of the company. She can only tighten her fists as he holds her instrument.
This gold soldier is still kneeling, mindlessly strumming. The dissociative action is perverse. It feels like he’s peeled her partner naked in the street. It feels like her dog is being killed all over again.
“I know you can’t see what I see.” He’s talking about corporate subspace, fluid data. He doesn’t see dark streets, discolored rainwater, and sloping buildings. He doesn’t see a world farmed to dust, buried in plastic.
“You could, if you wanted.”
Why is he being gentle with her? Friends and enemies are herded like animals. This isn’t the company she knows. She’s seen it all: groups of street urchins black-bagged into trucks in the middle of the night, men and women conscripted into an agency raping the last bits of civilization. Behind their helmets, they don’t even see the meat grinder, they see paradise.
The dregs of her humanity lie heavy at the basin of her soul. Wordlessly, he hands the guitar back to her. She overturns the case and upends its flood of waterlogged bills. She stuffs as much of the scrip into her pockets as she can. She replaces the guitar, she locks the brass clasps.
There is one great secret that corporate subspace might reveal to this propaganda claw, a secret that would void recruitment. He’d simply pull out his bayonet.
He doesn’t do that, either.
“You made it, didn’t you?” There is admiration in his voice. “I didn’t figure we had any artisans left.”
“My father built. He made guitars in the middle city, before the blackout. He made lots of things.”
She gives up her own father, just like that.
Something blinks overhead, and they both look up, surprised by the coruscating lights. Within the confines of an alternate reality, there are certain features of the world that cannot be censored.
A star passes, projected, a comet that was once an orbiting satellite. It’s been years since a satellite fell to the troposphere. It hangs there in burning brilliance, and the soldiers stop to behold it. The buskers take the opportunity to run—even those with broken limbs manage to limp away.
The limn light, she realizes, cannot be altered by the company’s arrogant systems.
“Your name isn’t patronymic,” the propaganda claw says as color splits the broken atmosphere. Heaven unfurls in the span of a second, where the sun hovers naked between factory clouds.
He holds the truth of her in his gauntleted hands. He knew her from the start.
“Your record reads like a code.”
The past is more permanent than anyone realizes.
Years ago, Sieg helped her father build a device. In this disintegrating yesteryear, she still had her dog. Citrine—all fluff and sharp ears and slobbering love—was hers. She lived as a smiling tower of muscle, a behemoth of aggressive genetic mutations. Her father adopted her because in his words: “She is the physical counterpoint to your beautiful soul.”
Citrine is playing at her feet as she helps her father build. It’s an ascension tool, according to him. A liberator outside the reach of the company. The things that deeply benefit humanity cannot be built by machines, cannot start there. It takes soft hands to make something meaningful. It takes fragile, inscrutable attention to construct something that will stand the test of time.
Slick with oil, arms numb to the bone and fingers cold to the tip, she admires her father’s great work. It’s beautiful and perfect, but she say none of these things. He doesn’t allow compliments—he never did. He claps her on the shoulder as she surveys the ark. Her mother bears the burden of cynicism; she’s a prophetess who appraises human progress as if it’s an unwieldy container sliding against the exhausted muscles of a dozen shipyard workers.
Her father had an anecdote for everything.
“Four hundred years ago, here, not far from where you were born, a man invented a device he called the Mechanical Turk.”
He does this while working—telling stories, providing lessons. It will be years after his death when she realizes he was only filling in the gaps left by her paltry company education.
“It was a gift, the Turk. It served exactly one function, as all good machines do: it could play chess and play it well.”
His words in memory are wreathed in a fuzzy darkness. With every year that passes, it becomes more difficult to conjure up the details. Her father’s shop, her mother’s home. Citrine at her feet. That was the happiest she would ever be. Nothing would come close, not again.
“People traveled from all over the world to best the Mechanical Turk at its own game. Great statesmen traversed the ocean to play a single game of chess against the indefatigable automaton, this mechanical wonder. It was declared a modern marvel, one of the great new wonders of the industrial age. A simulacrum that could outwit anyone, anytime.”
Sieg’s mother died unfed, ears filled with her husband’s optimisms. She died from the rot. Even as her father became a husk haunted by the loss of his love, his work continued. There was no moon that could eclipse such a radiant sun. Her only inheritance was his unbreakable heart.
“But it was only that—a simulacrum. Its purpose was to defeat.”
He stands shoulder to shoulder with her in the dingy light of that shop, rerouted light flickering over metal glistening with oil. Citrine barks at her feet, and Sieg lifts her into her loving arms with a clean towel. Her eyes swell with tears.
“The world doesn’t need more clever men building clever machines.” Those words are carved upon the walls of her heart by a ghostly hand—mene, mene, tekel.
The Nebuchadnezzar, her father’s ark, was buried with him.
As the propaganda claw stares into her naked soul, Sieg hates herself for looking away.
“It’s like digging a jewel free from the mud, finding one of you in the street.”
This company man isn’t here by accident, drafted in the chaos of a chance stroll—her abandoned name is branded across her head in the company’s virtual space. The rumble of distant tanks grows, and her muscles become glue.
It dawns on her that maybe the chance passed minutes ago, that she should have abandoned her guitar and the afternoon’s cash, should have climbed the broken ladders of looming buildings in an effort to get away, because this claw knows her father because she’s been found.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he says. This is no man wrapped in vanity—this a beast of metal skin, its eyeless face inebriated from its connection to a higher god. “I’m only going to take you apart.”
She’s not a person to this arm of capitalism. She’s a function, a bit of code, a pliable bar of metal by which an ark might be opened.
There are three paths home: through the tanks, through the soldiers, up and over the rain-slicked roofs. The gold monster has no visible weapons, but her few combat tricks are betrayed by a quickened heartbeat and a twitching eye. In subspace, her paths are paced like an ancient game, the reality in pretty colors and uncountable pixels. There’s a non-zero chance he knows how this is going to end, that he’s traced every infinite line.
“We found the Nebuchadnezzar buried beneath a corpse.” White hot anger transforms her—there’s a chance that after all these years, she is still an animal, that she can cast off Sieg to be who she once was.
The ark is buried beneath the ground; it’s buried within her mind. They’ve returned to find her unbreakable heart. Sieg damns herself forever considering her father’s will, for nurturing the part of herself that kept the key. She should have fried her own brain long ago and had done with it.
Shoulder to shoulder with her father, she feels so human. It doesn’t matter who built who.
Her father squeezes her. Her mother is happy in that darkness because she loves Sieg, she loves the daughter built from recycled scrap in a dingy basement beneath a flooded city.
All great martyrs begin this way. A child is born in the darkness of a hovel in the middle district, loved by its parents, killed by the state. Hallelujah.
“How did you do it?” asks the propaganda claw. “How did you survive this long?”
Some puzzle pieces twist in the black. All at once, a thousand contiguous points arc themselves toward a targeted path. There is a digital ascension.
The day she quit was the day she bit down on the tail. It was like she could see again, her eyes unclouded by the deluge of misery and pain. Her father never hooked her up to subspace, would never allow that psychic damage to fry her nerves. She was the one who decided to taste the company’s fruit and, in one infinite second, consumed all that was thoroughly rotted. You can satiate curiosity, but you can never go back.
This machine man of this corrupted world found her through the back door of her heart, subconsciously left open.
“I was tired of pretending.” She’s as real as the acid rain, as real as the march of the tanks. “I wanted to know if I could move the pieces on my own.”
Despite the opulence of his paradise eyes, he can’t detect the subtle changes in her body. A million red errors could sprint up at once and flood the system with visual effluvia. She’s not Sieg; she’s a leviathan—coated in blood, coated in oil, coated in old love.
There is a window of opportunity that opens and shuts with a stale breeze. Fingers fold empty air into a blanket of pressure, and she actually hears the gasp beneath the helmet as the company man realizes he’s given her too much space and time. She’s two stories up and climbing before he’s composed enough to shout. Bullets shatter broken windows and pockmark ancient brick and plaster, but it’s too late because she’s gone.
The old Sieg is dead, and the new Sieg is dead too.
The path she’s marked by the infinite processor of her infinite mind takes Sieg halfway across the city, rooftop to rooftop, thunder clapping behind and tanks rumbling below. Purple lightning arcs across the steeples, and she swings pole-to-antenna like a traceur from her father’s bedtime stories.
She’s nearly made it to the end when a bullet shatters her left shoulder, and her guitar-playing arm falls to the dark boundary. The explosion rocks her and sends her off-balance, and she’s careening in her path, feet stumbling over feet.
There’s no way to stop this. She falls.
Once upon a time, a man built a machine for a single purpose. He cared for that machine and imbued all his hopes and dreams for humanity within its modest shell. The man and his wife worked hard so that they may someday know a world for the people so that the laborious and the subjugated might be able to enjoy an easy meal and a place to sleep that sits three inches above the river of blood.
Once upon a time, there was a family.
Once upon a time, a man loved his daughter so much that he gave her his whole heart.
Her body connects with the immovable stone countless times as she falls to the city streets below. Everything that binds her shakes and comes loose. When she finally strikes the wet pavement, she’s blessed with relief because she is no longer plummeting through the sky.
As she blinks up through the rain, the world looks different than before. The machines within her are whirring, bleeding oil, and spitting smoke to comprehend the clouds that are no longer black. What she finds is color unending—but this is not paradise because no human god would grant peace to a golem.
She turns her head to see the shattered remains of her guitar, its pieces thrown free of a case whose brass clasps are snapped and discarded.
None of this matters. She’s still her father’s daughter, even if she can’t get to her feet.
“Was the Mechanical Turk really such an incredible machine?”
“It was because it carried a secret,” her father said. “It was a machine with a heart inside of it.”
Love burns within her like the last gasp of a supernova. It moves from the base of her spine to the void of her guts and up into her throat, where the light and particles bloom outward, disseminating into the universe. When she collapses fully—when her materials implode and everything she is and was and will be is scattered throughout the city—those who remain will breathe her in and she will become infinite.
The soldiers round the corner just as her skeleton glows like a neon beam. There’s enough time for the propaganda claw to exhale one final acknowledging breath before she shatters an entire square block. The foundations crack, and her lingering will beg the forgiveness of those who might suffer under her dramatic exit.
Far away, underground, an ancient interlinked network relayed by three million miles of indestructible cables stutters as thirty-two signals logged into subspace snuff out simultaneously.
Rain falls. There is no more thunder, and the dark sky full of factory clouds is free of purpled lightning. The noise that replaces the silence is a mix of joyful admiration and profound loss.
Twenty miles away, newly freed of her father’s bones, a machine whirs to life. In an apartment building downtown, beneath the Gothic ridge of decaying architecture in a cramped apartment, a light winks on and is followed by one, ten, a thousand. Radiators turn over. Streetlights like stalwart lighthouses cough warm radiance through years of dust.