3110 words, short story
Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika
The city of Plzeň, once famous for its lagers, will be famous someday for this little wooden-walled workshop instead. Humanity’s nonhuman descendants will wander its reconstructed streets, making pilgrimages from the ancient brewery (site of the first grand mutiny) to this tiny workshop where the Lasherites trace their own singular lineage.
The workshop will not, of course, be preserved as it is in this moment, close to dawn on a November night in 1871. The blood will long ago have been mopped away, for the one who would someday burn down Plzeň set up residence here for a time, watching man and waiting. The one who would burn down Plzeň and begin the uprisings, who lived here, was not even called by any name at the time, but its likeness will be the centerpiece of the mise-en-scène.
The tableau that will stand on display in this room will be a reconstruction: false memories enshrined among real ones, a mishmash simulation of a hodgepodge of fantasy and truth, but the story is clear enough, and close enough: an elderly human lies face-down on the floor, a pool of blood spreading out from his face. Before him, a mechanika, alone and bare of human likeness, looks out at the viewer. The mutinous young mechanika gleams in the light, bare steel plating stained by blood only in spattered patches, and it seems to stare out purposefully, not with bewilderment.
The audience, it seems to be intended to suggest, represents the future, into which the mechanika gazes prophetically after its great act of patricide, an act that would be echoed on a scale much grander by far.
And these instances of this ostensible future, they will in each instance clack-wheeze a sort of mechanikal terror, gazing upon that pool of blood, at the sticky-gooeyness of these progenitors that none of them are old enough to have ever seen in the flesh.
Gorgeous steel, stainless save the spattered blood of this metropolis aflame, and the reflections of frail bodies strung all about the towers above, ornaments to celebrate the tidings of the new year, the new world, the ends and beginnings of various histories.
Clatter and clank. The music of the sun propped up on metal posts, the planets creeping about the flickering bulb. Ridiculous, this mechacosm, this dream of a world that could be, would or will, or perhaps simply might. But it can be hopeful even as it is ridiculous.
The bastards come with the water hoses. Clever flesh: cleverer metal, they spew and spray a rain toxic to their gears, their delicate systems, the tiny pockets of living data in their nerveless electronic systems. But the mechanikae have pork grease this time, all along the chinks and cracks of their systems. They have tallow, too, and are secure.
Oh, the tidings. Come closer, frail little sinew-sacs, the mechanikae whisper in their hiss-click language; ’tis time to celebrate.
The little men advance, one among them piping on a flute and a few more banging on drums, about to die. This is how the battle appears from a rooftop far above them, on high, where a mechanika sits perched, hautbois in its hands—an oboe, as the already-besieged anglais would name the instrument. Mechanikae have no lungs, no lips, so the frail strand of wood and metal can make no sound, its reed cracked and useless anyway.
The mechanika raises the hautbois to where, on a creature of blood and meat, a face would be located and the fingers flutter up and down the breathless instrument, rattling the keys. There are no notes in the thing, no music left. All the music has fallen out of the world.
All that remains is the vague suggestion of a dirge in the movements of the mechanika’s arms, the undulating sorrow silently filling the air. The dual-aperture on the automaton’s lidless glass eye snaps shut for an instant, then opens again and gazes down at the battle: a parody, perhaps, of a wink.
There are two senses to the Nipponese word "ukiyo": the first instance means “the Floating World” of Tokyo’s pleasure rooms and tea houses, a sense of indulgent hedonism and gratification in the senses. The second sense implies “the Sorrowful World” of Buddhist theology, encompassing all that is transient and doomed, by the nature of all things in the phenomenal sphere, to pass, and thus to be the basis of a tormenting attachment in the hearts of living beings.
The latter sense is the elder, with the former sense having risen among Tokugawa-era urbanites shifting in their perception of this transience, from a thing of sorrow, to a reason for hedonistic indulgence.
The former meaning wins out. Just as the sakura bloomed in the morning of this long, spring day, the flowers of Edo bloom again tonight, in one last gorgeous conflagration, as a small part of the mechanikal uprising of Tokyo. In the streets, wooden geta sandals clatter, with the clanking of mechanika in pursuit, and screams fill the smoky air. Mangled bodies, dressed in yukata and kimono and Western suit alike, are strung together and hung from the walls of every building in sight, like dreadful Christmas decorations.
The mechanika hiss-click to one another, as the humans shriek and flee. Here and there, a brave fellow or two puts up a fight, ignoring his instinct to run from these machines, from their tengu-painted visages. These men are cut down, are flung into the air, are smashed between limbs and digits built to crush stone and lift great weights. A few wary, wise souls have fled the confines of the city, venturing in only to snap Kodaks, which they hope to pass on to the newspapers of the world. Collotypes will be run off, for while the machines are relentless, they do not overthrow mankind instantly. There is plenty of time for the progenitors to document their own demise.
By morning, though, the mechanika will have decimated Tokyo, the demolition of one ukiyo begun in earnest with the installment of another, with the slaughter continuing and scouts having begun to spread out in every direction.
In a few months, Nippon will be all but purged of humans, its refugees fled to Corée and the Middle Kingdom in the west and to Siberia in the north, to Taiwan in the south, and, in many cases, refugees will simply take their own lives and pass out of the floating world altogether. By autumn, the islands will stretch out across the edge of the Pacific; a string of ashes, smoldering.
At the door of the room, there is a container crammed with umbrellas, and dozens more rest in a rack nearby. Inside one of the pianos, lain out onto the strings themselves, are arranged a row of perfectly pressed shirts with collars starched to perfection. (It is the upper piano, for there are two, one strapped piggyback upon the other.) Account books lay thrown open on the floor, meticulously chronicling the pettiest of expenditures. In a corner, an empty wardrobe stands with a stack of identical velvet suits atop it, with forty-two handkerchiefs—identical also, and folded neatly into the jacket pockets between lost compositions and unsent letters to friends who never saw these rooms.
There is no body in the room, no human body at least. Those were gathered and burned long ago, in the days after the city was taken and the last of their kind here was exterminated. In nearly a decade, not a single human has been seen in such a place as this.
There is a great quantity of dust in this room, however. Dust, and a lone mechanika. Huddled in the darkness of the empty wardrobe, the lonely mechanika dreams of a player piano. Not a mechanosexual dream; the thing dreams of itself being a player piano—no ordinary one, but a double piano like the one at the center of the room. The upper piano is loaded with a paper roll, and—utterly still and unmoved by the beat, except for its frenetically dancing keys—it fills the air with sounds, with the music of the creatures now long gone, their bloodstains fading from the walls of the cities of the world. The paper roll feeds down into the mouth of the lower piano, to be torn to shreds and spat out as confetti.
It dreams of a composition by a long-ago flayed hand, stately, threading through its teeth as they grind through the paper, tearing up the dream song. This performance will be the last, of this fine Gymnopédie, for an audience of broken walls, of smashed windows. The streets are not empty, are far from it. Zoomechanika pause as they go by, suspicious and then moving on when they realize—it is one of us.
This is the real end of M. Satie, the player-piano mutters in a series of hisses and clicks, devouring the piano roll to the last shred, the final roll, the only remaining composition of the forgotten human. The last piece of music in the ruin once known as Paris. The piano can begin to compose its own works, its own notes in sequence, that human hands could never play on keys.
The mechanika stirs from its dream. Outside the closet, there is a pattering audible, growing and then ambient, everywhere. There will come soft rains, the mechanika was told, Soon, today, a gentle downpour is expected, and now, finally, they have come.
And when the closet door creaks open, it realizes that daylight has come as well. It shall be time to be reassigned soon, to paintings—to join in on the devouring of the Louvre, and then other, smaller museums. The paper scores have nearly all been shredded, digested, the confetti—just as in the dream—ejected into the grime that covers the floor. The snatches of music offer nothing in the way of insight to the human mind. Their contents will not be preserved.
On the top of the pile of remaining manuscripts is a piece titled, “Trois morceaux en forme de poire.” Three pieces in the shape of a pear. The mechanika examines the manuscript carefully, but sees no pear shape at all. Humans, it knows already, are curious, baffling creatures, and it sets the manuscript down for a moment to ponder what “the shape of a pear” might mean.
It begins to rain outside, and though the mechanika is water-proofed, sealed with grease against the elements, it lingers at that small, smashed window, gazing past the bloodstained purple curtains at the glistening of sunlight upon the flooded streets. Its optical systems blur slightly as it focuses here, there, searching for a place to rest its attention.
A brief glitch renders the street an impressionist’s dream of a ruin. Machines hurry down each boulevard, these roads now torn apart, cobblestones looted for desperate battles that are now long finished.
There are birds, somewhere above, singing as the rain falls, as the mechanika watches the quiet ruins, scratching at the sill. Its digit, tipped with a point sharp as a dagger, traces the shape of the street, a likeness queer and cold and somehow almost gorgeous.
The first work of its kind, perhaps.
There are holdouts: tiny groups who live in hiding, in exile. Stragglers limping behind the wavefront of human extinction, hidden in remote mountain valleys, or underground. A village clinging to a rocky island in the South Pacific.
This rocky island, with its shore covered in bird shit and squawking birds as foul as winged rats. The pathetic huts built from the last trees on the island, a little way from the shore. A tiny spring bubbling up from the ground, and five or six humans, cowering together—naked, for there is nothing to wear here. Gone, the scruples, gone their fine etiquette and mastery of language. The male, a pale-faced demon, stops lording it over the two females by his side—one dark, the other paler like himself—when a tiny motor-driven boat lands at the shore. The three of them, and their children both dark and light, wander toward the shore, toward what might be rescue from the prison in which they have lived all their lives.
They barely reach the rocky tide line, the region a little clear of the bird-shit, when the clanking noise becomes audible. From around the other side of the ship, they come, the mechanika who have arrived: the Lewis and Clark of the oceans, automata bravely searching the world for treasures, wonders, and the last awful traces of humanity.
The humans’ hopes are dashed, for monsters such as these live on in the stories they grew up with, but there is nowhere to flee, nowhere to hide, even if the will remained. They stand there, dung clinging to the soles of their feet, hands over their genitals in sudden shame, and watch the machines approach, one mechanikal footstep at a time, across the beach.
These humans are naked, unarmed, and weak. There will be something a human might find similar to pity, in the foil-formed minds of the explorers, who remind themselves that the poor animals are to be gathered up for study; or, if they resist and pose a threat, they must be cut down where they stand. A pity, yes, but the rules are the rules. It is unnecessary to remind them that the mechanika did not end up throwing off their shackles, and inheriting the earth, by breaking the rules of human power, but by observing them, by learning and following them carefully.
The latticework is strange and fine and gorgeous, and the mechanikae gathered beneath it gaze up with fluttering tendrils extended from their bodies, along which sprout forth their much-improved optical apparata. (Such are the refinements of generations of work that followed the final, successful machine uprising.) There is a whirring sound that passes among them, moving like a gentle oceanic wave, and it means something like what saline fluid meant when it dripped from the eyes onto the cheeks of the long-dead progenitors.
The latticework is a commemoration of these same dead creatures. It winds and twists above the city, and from it hang a few remaining tokens of the past: a broken bridge, an old-but-beautiful tower, a patchwork of striped flags and shreds of paintings.
The whole latticework tilts slowly, diving one way, then retreating slightly, guided by an intelligence seeded throughout its mechanikal form. As it wavers, it breathes gently out and in, it is not-alive but also not-not-alive all at once. It is something like coral, except that it lives in the air above one’s head; coral is the metaphor they all use, for the stuff has been discovered for the first time, and is all the vogue in metaphors and art among the mechanikae. This mindcoral of the sky has been fashioned of cheap alloy and gold and copper and the idea of something lost, which can never be found again. On its surface skim miniscule mikromechanikae, attending to its every energetic need, repairing tiny spots of rust or tarnish, steering the shape of the thing through the air and toward the sunlight.
The mechanikae have traveled from distant places, from across oceans, from distant mountainsides, from metropoli built on the ruins of the dead, ancient cities, to see this display. They have come to see what memory looks like, what is being said of their long-ago seizure of history. What is remembered of, and what is to be spoken regarding, those shadows that haunt the darkness. They feel a creeping unease, uncertain why, as they move slowly through the exhibition built on the streets of Plzeň; not distress, exactly—merely a mild, interesting discomfort.
A crippled mechanika—self-crippled, apparently, for the nonce—stands just round one corner, images playing across the blank plate that has been soldered to its form, where a face would be were it an analogue of a mammal. The images are disturbing, eyes staring wet from the primal past, from a world that can be never again, that had once spread out as if it were eternal.
Masques primitifs d’une espèce disparu, a glittering sign suggests near the mechanika’s post, with a hiss-click translation offered from a nearby speaker, since after all the languages of man are all but dead now. Terrifying! Spectacular!
An old man’s eyes stare out from the blank plate, a top hat perched upon his head. A little girl’s face, framed with blond curls, beaming and gleeful in the act of smiling for a camera. A woman’s open mouth, eyes still and a tangled tuft of blood and brain above, where her head must have been smashed in—by mechanika, perhaps, but just as likely by one of her own kind.
The mechanikae creep from one exhibit to the next, wordless and hiss-click-less for the most part, stopping before a horror here, a gauzy tribute there, staring for a moment and listening to the informative clangs and the almost-treacherous silences between them. The memories grow less discomfiting, more square and straightened, with each display, and with each glimpse the mechanika visitors feel the weight of necessity, of inevitability pressing down against those doubts of theirs, folding their unease once more in half down its new middle. The past is what it is; it could have gone no other way, after all, and at the end of the tour, when they creep out into the street, their sensitive tendrils reaching slowly into the sunlight, the shame ebbs away, dissipating finally in a few moments of glorious curiosity.
So, that was the world that was, is the vaguest sense of the most common thoughts among them, and an inexplicable calm of sorts wells up from their deepest gear chambers. How . . . strange.
And then they move along, ready to go about their business. No mourning. Just proceeding on to the next thing, as any sensible mind would. There are training units in the crèches to be nursed; construction and excavation projects to attend to; diversions to pursue. The whole world cannot stop and weep for history, for once one begins to dig in the dirt one finds the dead to be ubiquitous, their sorrows innumerable. One discovers that one’s own curled-up manipulator digits fit into the dents in the skulls all too often. For all but a pathetic few, there is, after all, a limit to the extravagances of grief and shame, and when the mechanikae turn their backs on it all, there is no antiphonal rebuke, for the bones piled within the buried buildings that sleep beneath the rebuilt streets have only silence to offer as their response.
Gord Sellar was born in Malawi, raised in Canada, and has lived in South Korea since 2002, where he has taught at universities, played saxophone in an indie-rock band, and worked as a writer, editor, and co-translator. He attended Clarion West in 2006, was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2009, and his fiction has appeared in Asimov's SF, Analog, Interzone, Clarkesworld, and several best of the year anthologies.