4260 words, short story
Of Alternate Adventures and Memory
Adventure Boy was twelve when he met Mechanic for the first time. They had gone to an exhibit celebrating the removal of the barrier between Central City and Metal Town. He remembered feeling proud. His mom, after all, had played a key role in building bridges between the two worlds and if not for her efforts, the barrier would still be there.
“There’s someone I want to introduce you to,” his mother said.
He’d registered the peak in her voice that could mean excitement or trepidation, but before he could feel anything himself, they were being welcomed into a circle of metal men.
“This must be your son,” someone said. “I’m very pleased to meet you. I hear you’re quite the Adventure Boy.”
A hand was extended to him, and he looked up. Light glinted off Mechanic’s domed head and Adventure Boy picked up the static threaded through his voice. An unrelenting old-timer, he’d thought.
“Well,” Mechanic said. “won’t you shake my hand? I assure you, shaking hands with me won’t turn you into a metal can.”
It was the hidden taunt that prompted him to reach out and clasp Mechanic’s hand in his. He noted the temperature of metal against his skin, but where he’d expected cold, Mechanic’s hand was warm. “I may be old,” Mechanic said, “but I’m still upgradeable.”
The other metal men laughed and Adventure Boy registered signals of relief from his mother.
“I’m pleased to meet you, sir,” Adventure Boy said. He didn’t know what else to say because he’d never heard of Mechanic and he didn’t know why his mother felt it was important for this man to like him.
After that introduction, his mother was summoned by Central City’s governor and Adventure Boy was left to wander the exhibit on his own.
Here were replicas of a life he’d never known. Photographs and reliquaries that meant nothing at all to him. They were part of his mother’s long ago life, not his. He had come to awareness in Central City, and he only knew this place with its smooth asphalt, ordered subdivisions and neatly manicured front lawns.
The photographs made him wonder though. He stared at captured images of piles of rusted metal, disembodied machines, and deserted buildings and he couldn’t help but wonder what it had been like when his mother still lived there.
“You should visit it someday,” a voice said behind him.
It was Mechanic. His hands neatly folded behind his back, his eyes directed at the replica of a building called the Remembrance Monument.
“Of course, the streets are silent now,” Mechanic said. “We’re being integrated into Central City’s workforce and there’s no need to maintain the workshops and the shelters. It’s a foolish fancy that none of us are allowed, but if you stand directly under the Remembrance Monument, you can still hear the whisper of voices from those who’ve gone before.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Adventure Boy asked. “I don’t belong there at all.”
Mechanic inclined his head. His face was blank, in the way metal men’s faces were blank. But Adventure Boy couldn’t help feeling as if he’d hurt the metal man somehow.
“I mean, I was born here,” Adventure Boy said. “I’m a citizen of this place. Also, Metal Town is no more, so . . . ”
His voice trailed off as Mechanic stepped away.
“You’re right,” Mechanic said. “This is your city. I hope you enjoy the exhibit. It was good to meet you, Adventure Boy.”
As he watched Mechanic walk away, he couldn’t help but feel as if he’d done a great wrong.
An alternate child will be a good addition to your home. Memomach industries works to create the perfect child to suit your needs.
—Memomach Industry ad—
He remembered the time he was refused a place on the school softball team. He listened to the soft-voiced principal as she tried to explain it to him.
Alternates were different. They could run faster. They had more stamina. It wouldn’t be fair to the children of the makers.
In time, he learned not to want. He tried to blend in. He was, after all, his mother’s child. In his second year at school, another alternate child transferred in. He tried not to speak to the other, and the other did not speak to him. They sat side by side on a bench watching the others play, not speaking a word.
It would have gone on that way if not for another transfer. Unlike them, Jill Slowbloom was noisy. She laughed loud and she made jokes. She was clumsy as well.
“My parents said they wanted the perfect child,” she said. “But they meant the perfect child for them.”
Her laughter drew them out of their shells. They were no longer two, but three, and when the term ended and another alternate transferred in, they became four.
“We could start our own club,” Jill said.
“I’ll be point. Eileen will notate. And you and Jeff can follow my lead.”
For a while, he felt like he belonged somewhere. Then the new term ended. Jill transferred out. Eileen moved away. He and Jeff were left staring at each other, not knowing how to fill the silence that was left behind.
Perhaps, he thinks. Perhaps if I go to Metal Town, I will find the words to fill the silence. Perhaps I will understand more.
Father wears the face of a numbered man. He wears the suit, he carries the briefcase, he drives the car.
At home, he morphs into someone who Mother argues with over their dinner.
“I don’t see why you feel the need to indulge him,” Mother says.
“Mechanic thinks it will be good for him, and I agree,” Father replies.
They are discussing Adventure Boy’s desire to visit Metal Town.
Mother doesn’t wish them to go, but Father sees no harm in it.
“I don’t understand why you want to see that place again,” Mother says. “I shudder when I remember how I almost lost you there.”
“But you didn’t lose me,” Father says. “And we can’t deny him this. If he wants to know it for himself, then he should know it for himself.”
“I won’t go,” Mother says.
“If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go,” Father replies.
Adventure Boy lies on his back and stares up at the ceiling. He had bought a picture of the Remembrance Monument and Father had hung it up. At night, the lines of the monument glowed in the dark.
Mechanic’s words rang in his ear.
“You can still hear the voices of those who have gone before.”
Come reminisce of days gone by . . .
Metal Town Tours, your official tourist operator. We provide detailed excursions, maps, and access to some of Metal Town’s most spectacular monuments.
—Metal Town Tours ad—
Smooth asphalt morphed into rough tarmac and the neatly ordered lawns of suburbia were replaced with fields full of high grass and wild sunflowers with faces turned towards the sky.
Father had rented a tour car; it was decorated with yellow sunflowers and bold black lettering announcing the name of the official tour agency.
They were the only visitors so far. It was a Saturday and most tourists came in after twelve.
Adventure Boy rolled down the window. A light morning breeze caused goosebumps to rise on the surface of his skin. But after that initial contact, his skin warmed and they vanished.
“It’s a much smoother ride than I remember,” Father said.
Adventure Boy turned to look at him.
Without his suit, Father looked like one of the makers. His face was not as rigid, his shoulders were relaxed and he wore a plain t-shirt and jeans just like all the other fathers Adventure Boy saw at school.
“We’ve never talked about it,” Father said. “But Metal Town is a painful memory for your mother. She came to consciousness here. She loved it and yet she wanted nothing more than to escape it.”
“Is this where you two met?” Adventure Boy asked.
“You could say that,” he said.
There was a pause and then Father said, “It was here that I brought her into being.”
With the unification of Metal Town and the Central City, Metal Town’s dwellers were promptly absorbed into the general workforce. Metal Town soon became redundant.
Proposals for the renovation of Metal Town are ongoing, but until then, it has been kept in its original state for the sake of those who wish to revisit an important part of the reunification history.
—Recorded guide from Metal Town Tours—
“These were my quarters,” Father said.
They stopped before a cluster of buildings. Adventure Boy noted the signs of decay on the metal scaffolds that kept the buildings together.
Father stood at the foot of the one of the houses. It was washed in gray, its shutters were wide open and one of them looked out at a field of sunflowers.
“Do you want to go inside?” Father said.
What precautions were carried out to preserve experiments from being stolen or taken away? This house, which holds the tools of a master maker, was secured with a special reader that identified visitors through codes implanted in their optic lenses.
—From Guide to Metal Town—
“It’s still here,” Father said.
Was that amusement in his voice? Father stooped, and Adventure Boy saw it. A small screen was set into the doorjamb.
“Try it,” Father said.
Adventure Boy bent down and pressed his eye to the screen. Nothing moved. The door didn’t budge.
“It doesn’t work,” he said.
“We’ll see,” Father replied.
He bent down and pressed his eye to the screen. There was a flash of green and a click.
“I can’t believe they haven’t put that out of commission,” Father said.
With a push, the door swung open and Adventure Boy was assailed with the smell of liquid oil, and the essence his mother took once every fourteen days.
“Is this . . . ?”
“Yes,” Father said. “Here is where your mother became aware.”
The open window looked out on the sunflower fields. He tried to bring up an image of his mother. He remembered the moment when he first came to awareness. He remembered her voice echoing within the confines of the room that became his own.
“He’s not waking up.” It was a soundbite from the past.
“Be patient,” Father’s voice. “Waking up takes time. You should know this very well.”
“But if I failed . . . ”
“You have not failed,” Father again.
He’d opened his eyes, and the room came into being. Walls of powdered gray and the smell of oil and essence pervading the air.
Then Mother’s face was in his vision.
“You’re awake,” she said. Relief colored her voice. “Welcome to the world, Adventure Boy.”
One of the archived stories is that of an early alternate. Created to be the perfect housewife, this alternate was so designed that it could easily pass as one of the makers.
There is no exact record of her progress.
—Metal Town Tours—
“Were you happy?” he asked.
“She was as I envisioned she would be,” Father said. “An alternate girl who was also quite human.”
“I know she is as you wanted her to be,” Adventure Boy said. “But, were you happy?”
“I am happier now,” Father said. “She broke her program, just as she was meant to. She became herself.”
Outside was warmer. It was mid-morning. They had been in Metal Town for less than an hour, but to Adventure Boy it was as if he had been there for a lifetime.
They parked the touring car close to the center.
“It’s good to walk,” Father said.
And like that they walked into the shadow of the Remembrance Monument.
A voice whispered through his circuits. He thought of the moment when he met Mechanic, the warm and solid grip of Mechanic’s hand and the urgency that rushed through him in that moment.
I want to see.
The thought rushed through him.
He stood there, looking up at the huge monolith that housed the harvested memories from the hundreds of thousands of Metal Town’s dwellers.
Urgency flooded him. He wanted to run. He wanted to hide. He wanted to . . .
He blinked and he was surrounded by warmth.
Tiny little pinpricks filtered through his consciousness. He was seeing and yet not seeing. The landscape shifted. He was inside of the monument and he was outside of it.
Father’s eyes were closed as well. His mouth hanging open as if he were suspended halfway to speech.
He shut his eyes and saw a vision. The tarmac buckled beneath him, the sunflower fields hemmed him about, and behind him was the roar of the Equilibrium Machine. Its bellow shook the air and he trembled. That great maw would consume him, would crush him, would take him down into recycling and a loss of all that he had come to love.
Despair consumed him.
And then she was there.
Mother. Her eyes flashing bright, her voice ringing in the air around him.
When he came back into himself, they were sitting at the foot of the monument. He wasn’t at all surprised to see Mechanic speaking with his father.
There are consequences for every choice we make. Be sure you understand before you make a decision.
—Mechanic, Words to the Wise, 14th ed. Ilay Press—
Heritage can be a burden. History can be a burden. Everything can be a burden if we choose to make it so.
—Mechanic, Words to the Wise, 14th ed. Ilay Press—
Mother never asked about their visit.
They came home and they went on as if they had never been to Metal Town. From time to time, he would dream, but he woke before he started crying.
“Back in the day, my memory would be fed to the monument,” Mechanic said. “But government has decreed that we can’t do that anymore.”
“This body grows old,” Mechanic continued.
They sat there listening to whispers that they couldn’t understand.
“I had to modulate your receptors a bit,” Mechanic said. “Your systems would have broken down without intervention.”
“Thank you,” Adventure Boy said.
Father didn’t say anything. He simply sat there, his head cupped in his hands.
“Memory is difficult,” Mechanic said. “We all live with the recollection of who we were. Your mother rescued your father. Theirs was an unusual situation. I didn’t think they would try to create another exactly like her.”
“I’m not like her,” Adventure Boy said.
“I know,” Mechanic replied.
There was a pause and then the metal man turned to look at him and Adventure Boy could have sworn he smiled.
“You’re like me,” he said.
The next time he saw Mechanic, it was at the unveiling of the new government’s plan for Metal Town’s rehabilitation.
He had grown into a new body. This one was taller and broader than his twelve year old one. He was living on his own now, earning a living as a regular Adventure Boy.
“Feeding the dreams of the masses,” a voice said behind him.
He looked down into Mechanic’s upturned face.
“You may change,” Mechanic said. “But I don’t forget an imprint.”
The governor had come onstage and was giving the usual speech.
“How old are you now?” Adventure Boy asked.
Mechanic cackled before he replied.
“Older than you. Older than your mother. Older than your father. Almost as old as the Monument they want to tear down.”
“You’re an alternate, aren’t you?” Mechanic said. “Surely, you’re listening to what the governor is saying.”
It was true.
“Redundant buildings,” the governor was saying.
As if those words were enough of a verdict.
“Relics of a bygone era,” the governor continued. “But we must move on. We must move forward.”
He could hear cheers coming from makers and alternates alike.
“But what about the memories?” Adventure Boy couldn’t help asking.
It was all the answer he needed.
We are always unraveling threads as we strive to weave them together. We think we can move towards tomorrow without yesterday. We forget that yesterday gives us the courage for today, and yesterday is the foundation of tomorrow’s dream.
—Mechanic to Adventure Boy—
Records show that our model children grow up to become model citizens. These are the kinds of citizens we need as we look towards our joined futures.
—Government statement on the creation of alternate children—
It hadn’t been all that difficult to find them. Awkward Jill had turned into a climber. Eileen created metal art. Jeff surprised him most of all. The silent boy played music in a club frequented by metal men.
What was not surprising—they had all sat under the shadow of the Remembrance Monument.
“It’s as if it was calling to us,” Jill said.
He couldn’t keep from staring when a smile bloomed on Jeff’s face. It was the first time he’d seen anything like it.
“We’re supposed to be model citizens,” Eileen said dryly. “Some would say you were planning anarchy.”
“It’s going to be risky,” Adventure Boy said.
“We know,” Jill replied. “Don’t pay attention to Eileen. It’s just how she is.”
“If we’re found out, there’s no telling what they’d do to us,” Adventure Boy went on.
“You only live once,” Jeff said.
“I don’t know if this plan will even work,” Adventure Boy added. “And you do know we could all end up being recycled.”
“Nothing tried, nothing gained,” Eileen replied.
“You guys . . . ”
“You’re planning something,” Father said.
He looked up from the console he was working on.
“It’s no big deal,” he said.
“Remember what you are meant to be,” Father said.
“I’ll remember,” he replied.
His father’s words hid a message.
This is between you and me, it said.
The days were hectic and short. Word was that the government was accepting bids from demolition teams.
“We have to do it soon,” Jill said.
No one would suspect them. Four alternates could not shut down the plans of a city. But they had to try.
When Mechanic showed up at his door, he didn’t know whether to be angry or thankful or sorry.
“I hear you might be planning something foolish,” Mechanic said.
Adventure Boy crossed his arms and stared down at the metal man. When he was twelve, Mechanic had seemed larger than life. He still had substance, but Adventure Boy no longer feared him.
“Are you here to stop me?” he asked.
“Do you want to be stopped?” Mechanic said.
He uncrossed his arms and looked Mechanic straight in the eyes.
“No,” he said. “And we won’t be stopped.”
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
—Newton’s Third Law of Motion—
“My son has plans. I don’t know what because he hasn’t told me. But he is also his mother’s son.”
—Father to Mechanic—
“You are your mother’s child,” Mechanic said. “She was also fearless even when afraid.”
“She has no part in this,” Adventure Boy replied.
“But she has,” Mechanic said. “Some part of you was born from her memory of Metal Town and the Remembrance Monument.”
Adventure Boy shrugged. He had already ensured that his mother would escape any repercussions. Also, she was well-respected and known for her collaboration with the government. Surely, she would survive his actions with little damage to the reputation she’d worked so hard to build up.
“Even she could not foresee this,” Mechanic said. “We mold our creations into our idea of what they should be like, but we also give you the ability to break that mold. Your mother is an example of this.”
“What do you want?” Adventure Boy demanded.
“Your mother fitted you well, but there are things you have yet to learn,” Mechanic said. “Please. Allow me to lend you my strength.”
Where are you going? Where do you come from? Where are you now? Who are you? Who do you know? What do you want to achieve?
—Life Questions, Guide to Finding your own Path, Mackay and Manay—
Mechanic lists down names and numbers, formulas, addresses, and contact points.
“Why?” Adventure Boy asks.
“There are things you can do with a small army,” Mechanic says. “But there are things you can do better when you spread your net wide.”
Adventure Boy has no words to speak his thanks. He watches Mechanic’s fingers as they type out messages on different screens. The words change in formulation, but the message is all the same.
I am calling in a favor.
I need your help.
Remember the bonds we share.
Adventure Boy understands what those words mean now. He understands why he cannot allow the erasure of accumulated memory. No matter how insignificant or how unimportant those memories may seem, no matter that Metal Town is deemed obsolete, he can’t allow those memories or those dreams to vanish without a trace.
“Here’s how we planned to do it,” he says to Mechanic.
They huddle around the table, four alternates and a metal man whose time is coming to an end. Beneath their hands, their dream of the future takes shape. Adventure Boy sees it as a network of roads flourishing, Jeff sees it limned in light going on into eternity, Eileen sees it as a fan unfolding again and again and again in limitless space, and Jill sees it as a flower that blossoms and blossoms and blossoms over and over again.
It is the vision they bring to the table—this promise of a future filled with the dreams and the memories of those who have gone before.
There can be no true reconciliation without acceptance. Until we see both of our worlds as occupying an equal place in history, unification is an empty word.
—Justice Torero on the unification of Metal Town and Central City—
When it starts, it is like a droplet of water falling into silent space. No one notices the movement, but slowly it spreads. Here and there, the earth shakes. Memory rises and people start to talk in sentences that start with: Remember when.
Memory becomes a living thing.
As the heat of summer washes over Central City and its dwellers swelter in the shade, what started as a small droplet grows bigger and bigger until it takes the shape of a summer storm that rattles the windows and doors and washes away the heat.
In the quiet fragrance that follows, memory blooms and with it the vision of a tomorrow.
Alternate Ambassador Saunders has purchased a parcel of land in Metal Town. She is the first of Central City’s recognized citizens to reclaim land in the place where she came to awareness.
Her partner, Nick Wood, has purchased a lot fronting the former garage building, claiming nostalgia and sentimentality.
—Central City News Network—
Folk musician, Karina Melendez, has purchased a parcel of land in what was formerly known as Metal Town. Claiming a desire for peace and a return to the earth, the land is fit for farming. It also boasts an acreage of wild sunflowers.
—Central City News Network—
In a startling new trend, Remembrance Monuments are being established in the first four wards of Central City. Open to Makers and to Alternates alike, the Remembrance Monuments are meant to house memories both personal as well as public.
In the section open to public viewing, memorabilia is displayed that depicts the progress of Makers and Alternates alike. An interactive timeline allows viewers to enter the stream of thought. This kind of exchange is a first in Central City. It is hoped that this endeavor will further interpersonal relationships as well as preserve the history of the times.
—Central City News Network—
“There are no more borders,” Alternate Girl says.
She has come to visit Adventure Boy on the eve of reunited Metal Town’s inauguration. For the past six months, she has endured a storm of demands. Critics have accused her of everything from being regressive to being senile.
But everywhere, the alternates were rising. They refused to be silenced. They refused to allow Metal Town to be forgotten.
“It’s not yet as I would like it to be,” Adventure Boy replies.
“Of course, it’s not,” his mother replies. “If you were so easily satisfied, you would not be my child.”
In the silence that falls between them, there is a kinship closer than any Adventure Boy has felt before.
“Why?” he asks. “Why did you make me?”
“Because,” she says, “even if I want to forget, someone needs to remember.”
He turns to her, and his puzzlement turns to understanding. In the palm of her hand she holds a chip. It has the marks of wear on it, but its casing is still golden.
“You know whose it is,” she says. “When I made you, he was also in my thoughts.”
Wordless, he takes the chip from her hand.
“When?” he asks. “When did he pass?”
“What passed was his body,” Alternate Girl says. “You hold him in your hands.”
Even if she doesn’t say the words, he can hear them.
He remembers Mechanic telling him that they are alike and he knows this is a gift he cannot deny.
“Will I still be myself?” He asks.
“You will always be yourself,” Alternate Girl replies.
He hands her the chip and bends toward her.
“Then,” he says. “let this body also house his memory.”
The world around him changes. He changes too. Mechanic is a memory. Mechanic is a dream. Mechanic lives on inside him.
He has no regrets.
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is an essayist, fictionist and a poet. A Filipino writer, now living in the Netherlands, she attended Clarion West in 2009 and was a recipient of the Octavia Butler scholarship. At present, she is the secretary of the board for a Filipino women's organization in the Netherlands (Stichting Bayanihan).
In 2013, her short fiction was shortlisted for the BSFA short fiction award. Most recently, her fiction has appeared in We See a Different Frontier, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, What Fates Impose, The End of the Road anthology, and as part of Redmond Radio's Afrofuturism Event for the Amsterdam Museumnacht at FOAM museum.