Alice watched the clock drop, falling from her hands and landing on the bed where it bled cogs and parts in a pool of machinery. With a gasp, she fell to her knees and gathered up the bits and pieces in her arms. Delicate, timorous, the tiny silver slivers clinked together, muffled by the thick coverlet. A heavy canopy hung overhead, stiff and white with dust, rendering the light fixture above it useless. No light could pierce that pall.
She sobbed, her head bowed.
“I can fix it. I can fix it. I can!”
From her fingertips, glowing blue along the nail bed, emerged drill bits that whistled and whirred as they spun in motion. Deftly, she rearranged the components and stitched together a network of interstices with sparks and solder. The sharp tang of metal singed the air; underneath it, the subtle, comforting scent of oil like unguent. It was fiddly work, but her mechanical tendrils were quick and precise, moving too fast for the human eye to compete. All that could be seen was a cloud of blue energy and glittering wisps as, gradually, a viscera of wheels and barrels came together. A final click and a shift restored the clock’s heartbeat. She smiled, her fingers smoking, and gingerly returned the greasy organ to its smooth wooden case before setting it down gently. Spikes of pain spread up her arms in a stabbing rush, but quickly faded away as she unconsciously lowered her pressure sensors. She rested her head on her arms and stared at her work.
“I did it.”
She was content.
The steady tick tock punctuated the silent space of the room, tick, tock, tick, tock, clip, clop, clip, clop… She was mounted. The donkey’s roughshod hooves clattered on a cobblestone path. It was a straight road, lined with pillars and figures. The caryatids were great marmoreal erections with sisyphean eyes, their former glory and definitions dulled by the ages. Each figure was frozen in prayer and ensconced between their imploring palms was a little lamp to guide the traveller. Dismounting, Alice stepped upon a plinth to take a closer look. She stared at the statue’s perfectly symmetrical face and thought she saw something there. Shadows lapped at the eyelids, spilling across milky globes. A wink. A maenad glint. Alice did a double take and jumped back.
A trick of light.
“Alice! What did you do to your hands?!”
Alice snapped back to reality and jerked upright, confused. Around the very real, very loud, voice of Mitsuko, the clock’s ticking now seemed no more than a murmur.
“I… I dropped it,” she said slowly. “I had to fix it. I’m sorry.”
“Damn it, Alice,” Mitsuko growled. “Come on. We’ll go get you repaired.”
Alice nodded and stood up dutifully. She was small, petite, designed for delicate work. Her hair, silvery fine like her tentacles, did little to disguise the patchwork of blue light printed across her scalp. The etchings framed her temples and cheekbones and disappeared down the nape of her neck, vivid against her dark skin. Beneath her hooded grey sweatshirt, the design wrapped itself around her torso and down her legs. She was entirely marked.
“God, you glowworm.” Mitsuko yanked Alice’s hood over her head and took her by the arm. “Come on.”
A few hours ago, the compound, cordoned off by a great wall, would have been alive with ads, brilliant holos that were projected against every possible surface, and a mixture of ragtag stands, bathing people in the gaudy shades of neon signs, but now all was quiet.
The flat was dark, but its drabness did nothing to hide its homely warmth. She could hear the steady crackle of white noise and news reports coming from Ophelia’s room, and, every so often, the slow whine of a sword being sharpened. Ahtawulf’s low mantra danced in every shadow, a deep frequency that made the air buzz. Hard blue shafts of light emanated from Jaxx’s doorway, fans blowing, cooling systems singing in a mess of pipes, tangled in wires. As she passed, Alice saw him supine on a leather bean bag, connected to the nexus through a big black headset. Hammer was in the open space where they convened for meetings; the holo was on and he was keeping count of his press ups with a new curse word at every crest. A briny cloud hovered over him and slowly diffused throughout the flat, carried by a small breeze that came in through a crack of a blacked out window behind him. Hammer acknowledged them with a nod as they passed. While Mitsuko paused to unlatch the locks on the front door, Alice stared blankly at the lumpy talk show host suspended on the textured living room wall. He was discussing the advantages of the latest version of Skin2Skin; organic cling film designed to reduce the appearance of ageing and other skin conditions.
“Bull—shit—priorities—” Hammer huffed.
As the last lock swung open, Alice felt a wave of guilt wash over her. She hadn’t been right since the Aria had infiltrated her mind six months ago. She kept getting things wrong, getting confused, breaking things. Sometimes it was hard to tell where reality stopped and started. Her head was like the clock, but no matter how much her fingers smoked, she could not fix it.
Mitsuko stopped and looked down at Alice—she barely reached her chin. “Look, don’t worry about it, ‘kay? We’ll get you sorted. No worries.”
Outside, the elevator was a gaping wound. Cables and twisted metal rattled around inside the shaft, constantly displaced by rats and roaches. Mitsu glared at it as they passed, but didn’t say anything. Alice knew she hated it; she said it was a liability even with the cameras Jaxx had installed. They picked their way down the graffiti-ed staircase, kicking aside loose litter and abandoned syringes. A bottle went tinkling down the steps and Mitsu swore under her breath, but it didn’t break. Glass should have been where the windows were, but instead screaming voids showed only polluted night skies. There were no stars and where the moon should have been, a projection, a holo, wavered against the clouds. Beneath it, London was a montage of bleached light and shadow, rolling out endlessly in a series of broken buildings and a blur of inchoate shanties to reach the Thames glittering sluggishly on the edge of the horizon. A few hours ago, the compound, cordoned off by a great wall, would have been alive with ads, brilliant holos that were projected against every possible surface, and a mixture of ragtag stands, bathing people in the gaudy shades of neon signs, but now all was quiet. Mrs Wu’s curfew saw to that. If Alice watched long enough, she would have seen enforcers roving around in packs, their electric batons coruscating against their grey hydrophobic uniforms.
They picked their way carefully down to the third floor through the labyrinth of refuse and dried up in-Soma packets, their silence disturbed only by the implacable scurrying of a smaller, busier world.
“Giz!” Mitsuko banged the door three times with a fist; patina flaked off in a small storm of red, spinning, eddying, on the air currents. Alice coughed.
“Giz, open up already!”
There was a slither of metal on metal, small beeps, and the sound of a heavy weight being dragged back before they were admitted. The man on the other side smiled when he saw them and let them through. He was tall, pale, and missing half his face. In its place was exposed titanium, sculpted on the human skull and its musculature to an astonishing degree of exactitude. His grin had a disconcerting effect. The liquid crystal gel in his eye glittered as he beheld Alice, the tiny nerve endings suspended inside quivering as layers of gelatinous muscle pulled apart the contractile aperture of an optical lens. He cradled her hands and gently pulled her over to his operating table.
“Mitsuko, always a pleasure. How are you, Alice?” Giz’s smile hadn’t dropped. “What have you done to your hands this time?”
“I had to fix something.” Alice shifted uncomfortably and looked away. “I’m sorry.”
Mitsu squeezed her shoulder. “It’s alright, Alice. Don’t keep apologising.”
Alice nodded and fell silent, looking down at her mangled, exhausted hands. The place where the organic and the synthetic met at the base of her knuckles throbbed in pain. She winced as Giz delicately separated some of the tangled fibres hanging limply from her open fingertips.
“You know, Alice—”Giz’s bedside voice was silky—“this is starting to become a regular occurrence.”
She glanced at Mitsuko before staring down at her feet. “I’m sor—I know.” She knew she was a pain, especially since the Aria. But Mitsu was always there. Alice just didn’t know how to explain what it was to her. She didn’t understand it herself.
“Such a strange little girl.” Giz smiled to show he was not being unkind, but Alice already knew he had a penchant for the fantastic. All along the walls were bottles and jars and dusty equipment, separated by decrepit tomes and thick books. It was such an outdated way to store information, but Giz was a queer man. His very being was a fusion between organic and synthetic, old and new, primitive life and post-human cybernetics.
Mitsuko perched against the edge of the stainless steel table and stifled a yawn. “Speak for yourself.”
“We could put an end to this. You needn’t feel pain at all—unless you want to. You could be so much more than you are now.”
Alice bit her lip to restrain the pain she felt taking shape on her tongue and shook her head.
“You don’t want to relinquish your…humanity, is it? The organic matter of your body—is that how you define it? That can all be grown, personalised, and bought now.” He spread out the threads, wiping them down with a brush, lovingly painting them with Skin’s biorganic-oil. “I wonder where that leaves us.” His gaze met hers, his jelly eye quivering as the greenish pupil dilated. “Are you even human, Alice?”
“Giz.” Mitsuko’s tone was steely.
“Mitsuko.” He gave Alice another disconcerting smile. She knew what was coming—he’d asked her a thousand times how she’d gotten her markings and her mechanical implants, but she could never answer. Mostly because Mitsu shut down the conversation. Mitsu had a deep-seated aversion to the non-human. Alice herself was indifferent, but Giz’s questions did make her wonder.
“Humanity is such an antiquated concept, don’t you think? Humans hold on to it with bleeding hands, but true spirituality is when man is released from his self-imposed bounds. You could be immortal, you know.”
“And why would anybody want that? You wanna hang around here forever? Look at this dump. I lost count of the amount of injectors I saw on my way down.”
“Mmm.” Giz acquiesced. “Mrs Wu isn’t likely to do much about it, though.”
Mitsuko rolled her eyes. “Imagine that.”
Alice didn’t much like Mrs Wu. A small, mean, Chinese lady, she was more than just their landlady, she was the local syndicate leader. As Mitsu and the doctor talked shop, Alice drifted off into her thoughts, but the dull ache in her hands kept her tethered, and so she found herself in a peculiar state of stasis, watching the happenings around the room with a muted kind of interest. As archaic as they were, she liked the way Giz’s books looked stacked up in piles that reached the ceiling. They were often used to fuel fires on the streets, but, before they were offered up as kindle, Alice would sometimes flick through them. The language was different, old, hard to read. Jaxx told her it was inefficient. Redundant grammar. An entirely nonsensical lexicon. He said they used to spell based on where words came from rather than what they sounded like. Etymology, he called it and snorted, how stupid was that? But, Alice thought, there was a kind of beauty in that, a kind of enduring identity, a trail lovingly traced through history and preserved on paper. And then burnt and whisked away. That was sad. But then everything was on the nexus, everything. She pictured Giz and his headset, constantly connected, constantly searching and reading. ‘No matter how much a person stayed online, they’d never have time to read about everything,’ she thought to herself. ‘Besides, who would want to?’
In the corner of the room was a glass case containing silver body parts. There were limbs on one shelf, organs on another, each carefully arranged according to function. There was a separate tray for digits. Without realising, Alice had been watching them gleam for the past five minutes.
He said they used to spell based on where words came from rather than what they sounded like. Etymology, he called it and snorted, how stupid was that?
Giz followed her line of sight. “They’re pretty, aren’t they? Do you want some?”
Alice jumped. “N-no… thank you.”
Mitsuko rested a hand on Alice’s head. “You’re not making a guinea pig out of Alice, Giz.”
“Guinea pig?” Giz chortled. “It’s all been tried and tested, Mitsuko. Whoever fixed your arm didn’t know what he was doing. I could fix it for you. And if you wanted more parts, I could arrange it for you.”
“Not bloody likely.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’ve got just the right amount of metal. Besides, it works just fine.”
“My offer still stands. Avail it whenever you like.”
Alice flinched as he began winding up her little finger. Staring at Giz’s face, she spoke up, “Is that immortality? The metal?”
“Well, it doesn’t die like flesh.”
“And what?” Mitsuko raised a sardonic eyebrow. “You become like the Scions of the Halcyon?”
Giz looked at her and gave a very resolute, “No,” in answer, before returning to his work. “Immortality is perfection. Perfection is possible only for those without consciousness or with infinite consciousness. The Sons of Hell have corrupted their brand of immortality with imperfection and dressed it up in ritual and fancy. Their inadequacies lie in their all too human cognition. Their bodies might have moved on, but their minds have not. They are heirs to nothing.” He smiled at Alice as he wound up the rest of her fingers. “But for you, little doll, I meant only full cybernetic conversion. And if you could persuade Mitsuko too, you could run around London terrorising innocent doctors together forever.”
“Innocent?” Mitsuko smirked.
He clipped each fingertip closed and then, almost involuntarily, brushed the blue marks on Alice’s hands. They sparkled like Giz’s curious eye, small strings of bio-data streaming through each pool. Alice could see the question puckering his brow, but he restrained himself, smoothed out her hands and announced with a smile: “All done, Alice.”
“Thank you, Giz.”
“Always a pleasure, little doll.” Giz handed Mitsu a packet of in-Soma. “Half a capsule if she complains. Though not sure she will, she never does. She didn’t even ask for anaesthesia.”
“I hear that stuff’s hard to get hold of nowadays.”
“It is,” Giz said heavily. “That’s why I’m relying on this second grade rubbish as a sedative.”
“Thanks, Giz. I’ll see what I can do about that. Come on, Alice.”
Alice nodded dutifully and followed Mitsu back out into the inky black corridor. She looked over her shoulder as she left and saw Giz watching her go, the question clinging to him like an aura. He was the type of man to try and read everything on the nexus—she could tell; that was why he kept books for their intended use when everybody else had forgotten. One of these days she would have to answer him too, Alice thought, but that meant finding the answer first. She reached for Mitsu’s hand and they set off back up the stairs.
By Mehreen Fatima Ashfaq