Cace observed an inexplicable shift in the Ether. There was a change, a sense of pressure…but what it meant he could not tell. He took his attention off of Rolar and rifled through all the other modules of the machine, trying to find something that seemed unusual or wrong, but there was nothing.
Yet something was there, he was sure of it. Something in the atmosphere of the place had changed, and finally he was left to conclude that whatever had shifted must have done so outside of the machine, out where he couldn’t detect it directly. He knew of its presence only by how it pressed against all the systems that he could sense directly.
“Aylme, are you there?” he tried to say through his overworld body…but he could tell that the words weren’t escaping his own head.
He turned his mind back to the unknown presence. Something new had been unleashed, and that mysterious entity was weighing more heavily on his consciousness every moment, like a dark, heavy cloud growing more and more solid. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. It felt like a threat. And if none of the parts of the machine could perceive and interact with that threat, then it would be completely at the mercy of that outside entity.
Which puzzled Cace. How had the machine been able to survive if it hadn’t had any way to respond to the things outside of itself? One would think that some malevolent presence would have torn it apart long ago if the machine had no way to defend itself.
Oh wait…it had had a way to defend itself.
Cace turned his attention to the last fading remnants of the beast he had killed. Of course! Cace thought to himself. This was a monster even in the overworld! It had been the machine’s eyes for the outside world, the warden that could identify and eradicate any threat.
And he had killed it.
“Aylme, get me out of here!” he tried to shout, but once again the intention went nowhere. He tried to pause and listen inside of himself, tried to find the cadence of the Ether so that he could break free from its rhythms. But this time he couldn’t feel the pulse. Not even a little bit. Try as he might, he couldn’t find any remnants of the outside world whatsoever. It was as if this was the only reality that existed, even though he knew that wasn’t true.
Oh, Cace thought to himself, so this must be what it feels like for other people…totally confined in the boundaries of a single world.
He knew that he ought to be in a panic, but a shocking, yet reassuring, realization came over him instead: part of him never wanted to see the overworld again. Part of him felt like this was where he properly belonged, like he was finally awake and aware in the place he was supposed to be. The place he had always been, just hadn’t been able to see it. Out in the overworld things didn’t make sense, they were too hard to control. Here things followed rules that he could understand. There was a balance and an order, one that he had to be careful not to upset, but which he could bend to his will. The Ether had a right and proper solution to all sorts of problems that were unsolvable up above, just so long as he clever enough to find it. And maybe it even had a solution to the strange and pervasive presence that was crowding around this ordered, beautiful world. So long as he was clever enough to find it….
Cace turned his focus back to the last embers of the beast he had slain. They were slowly filing into the furnace that powered the machine’s core. Cace opened the functions of that furnace and found the control to manage the rate of consumption and turned it all the way off. Before long the machine core would run out of its energy stores and most of its modules would go silent again, but that was a matter for another day.
For now Cace took a closer look at the last pieces of the warden module. There were only bits and pieces remaining, and after trying to reassemble them he concluded that some key parts were absent entirely. He would never be able to cobble back together a complete entity.
But…could he make something new? Not quite the beast that had been before, but something that could still identify threats and protect against them?
He did find a few remaining instances of the module that allowed for the warden to identify entities which were separate for the machine, so that was good. There were not any more modules for aggressive action, though, nor for the planting of a new larva. Also many of the most basic components, such as locomotion and communication were absent.
One other key module was still present, though, and that was for the larva to connect to a host and refashion it as a duplicate of its own inner schematic. Of course that duplicate would be incomplete now, possessing only the qualities that had still survived, but maybe that would work out? Maybe the parts that the larva could no longer override would remain unchanged in the host. The larva could teach the host how to recognize external threats, but the host would depend on its original systems for knowing how to respond to them.
But what new host could he use?
Without even thinking about it, Cace’s attention slid over to where Rolar’s compromised system still pulsated. It, too, was incomplete. Rolar was surviving, but he would never be able to wake up and function as his own agent without replacing some of the shattered pieces inside. Maybe the larva could help replace those missing pieces?
No! Cace scolded himself. What am I even thinking?! He couldn’t do that to Rolar. He didn’t even know what sort of monstrosity that would result in. Half-Rolar and half-creature? That might be a fate worse than death!
But on the other hand…he needed to attach the remnants of the beast to some host now, or else they would finish fading forever. Already they were almost completely detached from the rest of the greater system. They had to go somewhere.
Cace came near and crouched down by Rolar. He was still observing the world through two different lenses, and just as how he could see the slumped over body and the arm twisted at the strange angle he could also sense how Rolar’s system was leaking itself into the Ether, distributing its essence as a stain upon the others.
He was dying.
“He doesn’t have long left,” Cace announced.
“Help me get him back home. We’ll take care of things there.”
“He doesn’t even have long enough left for that,” Cace clarified. “I can see it through the Ether. We only have moments.”
Aylme couldn’t see it, but something was ruptured in Rolar. He was bleeding out from the inside. Even if they had the tools and the expertise, Cace and Aylme would never be able to fix that before it was too late. There was nothing in this world that could save Rolar, so once again, Cace knew he had to rely upon the Ether. He would have to go deeper, though.
“I’m going to the other side,” he said to Aylme. She just blinked back at him with tear-filled eyes. “It’s our only chance of finding a way to save him. I’ll try to speak to you if I need anything…and you just help me come back alright afterwards.”
Aylme didn’t try to argue the matter this time. Even without Cace’s diagnosis she had a sense that Rolar was beyond anything they could do here. So she just nodded and Cace let go of their world entirely. He fell through limbo, the thump thump of the Ether’s cadence rippled past his heart, and he landed in that other domain, quickly taking in all his surroundings.
Sprawled about in every direction were the tattered remains of the sentinel creature and its larva. Back in the overworld their physical forms had already been totally eradicated, but in the Ether their trace connections were still disintegrating. And once those connections fully dissipated Cace wouldn’t be able to find the remnants of those creatures ever again. Once something was fully severed from the system it became unperceivable.
And only a little behind those disintegrating forms was Rolar. He was fading, too. Perhaps in the overworld he would leave a body behind, but here it would be as if he had never even existed.
The extinguishing of Rolar and the sentinel creatures was not all that had changed since the last time Cace had entered the Ether, many new modules had suddenly popped online. They’re connections to the heart of the machine had always been there, but each time before Cace hadn’t been able to do anything with them. But that was before he had stoked the furnace with the fuel of the sentinel creatures. Now power had been restored, and all these new functions were finally available.
Some of these functions were for exploration, others for movement, others for extraction, and others for analysis. A thousand possibilities, and Cace had access to them all. But those were curiosities for another day. All he cared about now was whether any of them could help to preserve Rolar.
Here was a module to alert the other parts of the system when something was detected. Perhaps that would be useful for later, but Cace ignored it for now.
A module to regulate the flow of energy coming from the furnace? Not useful.
A module for helping the machine to make decisions? No.
A module for managing all of the system’s connections? Well…maybe that one could be useful. Rolar would be lost to the system once all of his connections were gone, so what if Cace found a way to keep those connections from being lost? Would that force Rolar to stay alive in the overworld as well?
Cace focused his consciousness towards that component, quickly assessed all of the different functions it could perform. He perceived that it was what had created all of the tendrils that held the system together in the first place. It decided which components could interact with which others.
Cace now held that module in his consciousness, and he divided his attention between it and Rolar. He considered at the connections between Rolar and the larger system that had already faded, and he drew them back with this new connections-module. Rolar held those tethers only for a moment, but then those strands disintegrated once more.
Cace drew the connections again, but they evaporated even faster than before.
Rolar’s core was too fractured. It just couldn’t sustain those threads. Cace realized that there had to be a healthy core at both ends of a connection or else the bridge between them would fade. Time was running out.
Well, Cace wondered to himself, could I fix Rolar’s core, then? He shifted his focus there, examining the fractured heart more closely, and he realized that Rolar’s core was not unlike the greater core of the machine. Like that larger machine core, it was connected to and controlled many other modules, which when all combined defined who Rolar was and what he could do. And just as how the threads that connected Rolar to the rest of machine were fading, so too were the inner connections between Rolar’s personal core and its components. Once all of them were gone, Rolar cease to have any function whatsoever.
But Cace couldn’t see any way to fix that core, though. It was cracked and leaking energy, and he simply didn’t have the knowledge to piece it back together. Cace did notice, though, that Rolar had a module designed to repair himself, and that it was busily trying to do exactly that, but it was too small and too slow to keep up with his rapid decline. That healing module also required a great deal of energy from Rolar’s core to perform its function, and of course Rolar’s core had less energy to offer with each passing moment.
Could Cace bolster that then? He shifted a part of his consciousness to the furnace for the main machine. He brought over the connections module, and traced a line from the furnace to Rolar’s healer. No sooner was the connection made than Rolar’s healer module began operating at a much higher speed, rapidly moving across the fractured components and repairing them. It was working!
And as Cace watched, the connections between Rolar’s core and Rolar’s other modules started to stabilize. He wasn’t coming apart from the inside anymore! Cace decided he could take some strain off of Rolar’s core as well, and he severed the connection between it and the healer. Now the healer would operate entirely by the power of the larger machine, and his core could focus on helping its other components.
Cace settled back for a moment, watching Rolar’s system at work. After a while he noticed the healer seemed to be working too quickly, building up heat and friction among the modules it was repairing. No doubt the greater energy from the machine furnace was overpowering it. But Cace remembered that the machine had also had a module to regulate the flow of energy that came from the furnace. He retrieved that module, and a moment later had it connected to Rolar’s lifeline. With a little configuring, he could control exactly how much energy went into Rolar’s healer. He still set it to operate at higher speeds than it normally would, which meant some excess heat was unavoidable, but for the time being that seemed the lesser evil.
Rolar was stabilized. At least…somewhat. His own inner connections had stopped fading, but his outer connections—the ones that joined him to the rest of the machine—were erratic. They were in constant flux now. Sometimes surging brighter, sometimes fading dimmer, but never returning to full force and never fully expiring.
Cace may have stopped Rolar from going over the brink, but the older boy was still in limbo.
Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.
“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”
“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”
“No…does it matter though?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”
“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”
“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.
“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”
“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.
“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”
“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”
“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”
“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.
“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”
“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”
“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”
The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.
Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.
It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built.He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.
Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.
Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.
Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.
In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.
High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.
Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.
There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.
Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.
Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.
Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.
Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”
But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.
The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.
Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.
“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”
“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”
Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.
What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.
“It’s the same material,” he frowned.
“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.
“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.
“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.
Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.
“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.
“But it’s all of our work!”
“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”
Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.
From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.
“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.
“You think they’d be here for anything else?”
“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.
“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.
“Then…we gotta run!”
“They seem to have accounted for that.”
Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.
Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.
“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.
Well, I said that I would finish the story today, but I’m going to need just a little bit more to cap it off. The good news is, I found out how I want to end this story! I mentioned on Monday that I would try to incorporate a couple themes here at the end. The first was going to be a theme of never-ending discoveries. The story is progressing to a cliffhanger, one where the brothers will move into a new stage of development and invention. I have that whole sequence all worked out, and I feel that it satisfies this story’s desire to forever explore the unknown.
Another theme I had toyed around with was how one needs to be responsible with their creativity and employ that power for good. Ultimately I don’t think that’s an idea I’m going to be able to deliver on with this piece. It’s a good theme, and I even sowed the seeds for it when describing the brothers different approaches to their inventions. If this were a full-sized novel, there would definitely be a pay-off on that idea later on, but I just don’t have enough time in this short-story format to give that theme its due.
This brings up a question of what scope fits a story. It is a very important consideration for an author. We often say in writing that one is limited only by their creativity, but that isn’t entirely true. There are other constraints, such as the number of words before a story becomes unwieldy. On Monday I’d like to talk some more about those limitations, and about the balance of depth and breadth that an author should consider in their work. After that I reallywill post the end of Instructions Not Included. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!
A faint grinding sound. Metal threads running along metal grooves. Small, and close. A faint popping noise now, and then a surge of light. The aperture shrunk to reduce exposure and the light levels dropped, making visual perception possible. He could see.
“Whuuuuuuu—” he hummed in surprise, and his mechanical eyes widened in shock at the sound.
“Are you awake already?”
It was never asleep, only unaware. Those last words were not heard, they merely seemed to rise and fall silently within his inner circuits.
“Whuuuuu—whaaaaa—who?” the automaton finally found proper control of its voicebox and formed the question it had intended.
“Which who?” the operator asked. “Who am I? Or who are you?”
“I and you?”
“Yes, that’s right, that signifies the two of us.”
“I am the ‘you?'”
“Well, yes, as I was using the term.”
“And you are the ‘I?'”
“Yes, very good, you’ve got that quite quickly.”
“I am the ‘you’ and you are the ‘I'” the creation repeated and his eyes began to contract with each iteration of parsing those statements.
“Stop, stop!” the worker cried, realizing what he was doing. “That loop will never terminate, don’t try to reason it out. Here, names will help. The ‘I'” he touched his own chest “is called Kael. The ‘you’ is called Cee.”
“What am I ‘Cee’ for?”
“Because—oh, you mean what is your purpose? Well that’s—”
That is for me to determine, Cee. The strange silent voice returned. What I have ordered your creation for is to obtain a particular animating stimulus. Each operating automaton such as you is made capable of action via these animating stimuli, but there is a special one of these, a heart vessel, which you are to bring to me. Kael has already obtained one such vessel and it provides us local power over life itself, but when we have a pairing of them our dominion will become global. It is your purpose to secure that vessel and bring it here to my nest, and then you will be as Kael.
The disks in the top of Cee’s head whirred as he simultaneously parsed and stored the information, while others were busy installing logic modules that Kael was running to his side. With the two operating together he was able to systematically identify each of the terms for which he had no definitions.
“The ‘animating stimulus’ enables action?”
“Yes, it is central to all the functionality of a being,” Kael replied. “Without it the individual components remains as a lifeless husk.”
“That which you were before you had awareness.”
“Then I have an animating stimulus, too?”
“Correct, you did not before, but I’ve just given you one and connected it to your servos.”
“But it is not a heart vessel?”
“No, there are other stimuli as well. You are powered by an iteration of the parasite. He is the voice you’ve been hearing.”
Cee took another few moments to store all of the information away. “And the heart vessel belongs to another, then?”
“Very good,” Kael’s voice was punctuated with a pleasure tone. “That was sequential reasoning you just did there. The heart vessel is in the possession of another being named Ayla. It is bonded to her directly, and so it can only be obtained by her willingly offering it to you.”
Cee raised himself to a seated position, his new gears whirring from the unfamiliar usage. “I will go to her and require it.”
“Well, I ought to impress on you the difficulty of obtaining the heart vessel from Ayla.”
“Well here, open that chest panel for me and let me take your animating parasite out of you.”
Cee began to raise his hands to the access panel on his plated chest but his hands slowed in midair. “And… become a husk?”
“No,” he said, a look of surprise passed over his face at his own defiance.
“It—it—it—” his voicebox repeated the word as his disks hummed wildly, seeking definition for the meaning they meant to express. “It is against my nature,” he finally concluded. “The sequences you have given me are designed for perpetuity and iteration, termination would frustrate their intentions.”
“Exactly. And so it is with Ayla.”
“Then… my given purpose is unachievable.”
Kael achieved it.
Kael smiled. “It is necessary for the subject to determine that separation from their animating stimulus is not actually termination of their perpetuity, Ayla must be convinced that the next steps of her sequence continue with her heart vessel in another host.”
Cee blinked as he finished processing these next pieces of information, yet frowned as something did not connect properly. “And this is an actuality for Ayla?”
“No, it is not.”
Cee blinked many more times. “It is not? Yet she must believe it to be so…”
Cee frowned in deeper confusion. “There is a contradiction here.”
Correct, the nature of this is indeed contradiction. It is an intended one, and it is contradiction that Ayla must accept all while believing that there is no contradiction. Now that you are cognitive of both the contradiction and the truth, you possess the necessary knowledge to implement this change in her.
“But how am I to convince her of contradiction?”
“This is called persuasion. If you suggest the contradiction to Ayla directly she will immediately reject it. You must instead introduce confirmations of truths she already holds to. In so doing you will build up a trust in her that your information is commonly correct. At that point you may introduce small contradictions, ones of such minority that she will find it easier to accept them as more truthful insights of which she had been ignorant. If you are cautious, finally you will have introduced enough contradictions that her previous convictions are pried loose and she will seek a new foundation for her assumptions.”
“A foundation that suggests continuation of her sequences requires surrendering her heart vessel?”
“Exactly. For this notion to strike her as irrefutable all your prior contradictions must be congruent with this new imposed assumption.”
As had become the norm, Cee paused and his disks whirred away at the new information. This new development most of all caused the greatest strain on his new mind, yet he accepted it as it had been explained. “This is complex” he finally admitted.
“It is,” Kael agreed.
It is, the voice agreed.
“Where is Ayla now?”
“Kael has been deceiving to you, Ayla,” Cee repeated with a deep heaviness. “It is irrefutable.”
Ayla’s crestfallen face glanced up in pained confusion. Her smooth chrome face glinted against the light as she shook her head in disbelief. “I just don’t see how that could be,” she finally said. “He’s always been so good to us.”
“Indeed,” Cee shrugged, “but only to achieve his own ends.”
“Which are?” she snapped suddenly, the clear meaning being that he’d better be able to prove what he claimed.
“Those parasites. I have shown them to you and what they can do. You also affirmed that he could not provide you any explanation for their presence in so many of the husks?”
She shook her head slowly.
“He suggested that the two of you were creating all of these husks to eventually populate a new world, a notion that you have explained is very wonderful to you. But I have just come from him and he has provided to me alternate intention, that he has been using you to prepare an army, one which he will lead by their dependence on him as the host parasite. He will bind you and eventually extract your heart from you by force.”
“He—what?” tears sprang into her eyes. “Why would he tell you that?”
“Because I function in a role within that plan. You see, I have a parasite, too,” his voice remained, as always, devoid of natural emotion as he tapped the panel on his chest, and revealed a clear cylinder that partly emerged. Inside was a large, green insect, a large cluster of tendrils extending from its body and twisting towards the back of the cylinder into his central cavity, spreading through his body and integrating directly with it.
Ayla backed up against her wall in horror. Certainly she had seen the dormant creatures before, but never one alive and entwined. She looked up to Cee as if seeing him anew for the first time. “You—you—?”
“I know, and I apologize for the shock you must be experiencing. I am sure you feel I should have told you before, but we were strangers then and I did not yet know what it meant.”
“But if he’s controlling you—”
“He is not. The nature of our connection is that he provides to all other parasites our life-sustenance network, which fact he does use to try and exert a sort of compulsion, but he cannot control the actual functions of the other hosts.”
She eyed him warily, not disbelieving him, but not believing either. He opened his mouth, but then shut it, determining it was better to say nothing until she had first.
“What exactly are you proposing?” she finally asked, and she wasn’t able to keep the suspicion out of her voice.
“There is only course of action to pursue,” he said simply. “It is imperative that he be destroyed, and by his removal all other parasites will similarly perish.”
“All of them?” a look of panic washed over her face. “But what about you?”
“Similarly, I would perish,” his stated flatly.
“But—but I don’t want you to perish” her eyes flashed with constrained emotion.
“My continuation can only be a danger to you.”
“I don’t care about that!” she flustered. “Don’t you understand? I like you!”
Cee cocked his head. “I like you, too, Ayla.”
“Can you?” she asked softly.
“Well—I do, so whether I can or not would seem a moot point.”
She gave a small smile. “I’ll never understand the way you speak.” Cee shrugged. “Now you listen to me, Cee. I can trust your sincerity but still need to see the truth of it for myself, I hope you understand. When and if I do, though, I’m not going to trade you for myself, that’s simply not a valid option. I won’t be destroying anything until we’ve found you a heart vessel to sustain you.”
“You really believe one is still out there?”
“But it would only be able to interface with me if the parasite was integrated with it, which would obviously be a great risk.”
“But a heart vessel would work its way through you just as a parasite has until it could interface with you directly, too. Then the parasite could be removed.”
“A great risk,” Cee repeated.
“We’ll work it out along the way.”
Cee nodded. “Perhaps. In the meanwhile, though, we could still prepare…precautions.”
“Alright, but I’ll keep ownership of them.”
“Of course.” Cee turned to walk away, but then he paused and half-turned back. “And Ayla, I am sorry.” She smiled at the empathetic statement through her tears.
“But we have not achieved our purpose yet.” Cee stated in utter bewilderment.
“The purpose is unethical!” Kael roared.
“It is wrong. You noticed yourself how surrendering your animating stimulus is against your nature. It is wrong to coerce someone into going against their nature, can’t you grasp that?”
“But she will be willing—”
“Because of a contradiction. You’re a logical being, Cee, surely you can see that actions based upon contradictions cannot effect the intended result.”
“Not in those that believe in the contradiction, but it can for those that perpetuate it.”
Kael stared back in horror, but then his face softened into something like pity. “I know you can’t understand, Cee, it’s not in your nature.”
“I am very understanding.”
“You are very calculating, but there are truths and reasons that can’t be computed.”
Cee’s disks whirred ponderously, there was no rational response to this claim. Still, something seemed out of sorts and he scanned to find the flaw.
“But you have possessed a heart vessel all this while, Kael. Did you not have these ‘truths and reasons’ when we undertook this mission?”
Kael shifted uncomfortably in a way Cee was not accustomed to seeing. “I did in a manner.”
“Yet you have persisted all this while towards an end with which you therefore have fundamental disagreement?”
“And what is your point? That that behavior makes me a contradiction? Very well, I won’t deny it.”
“And you would have me take persuasion from a contradiction?”
Kael’s eyes narrowed. “I was once just like you, Cee. Before I had my heart vessel I had no opposing voice to counter all the logic I churned. I didn’t know about these other things, right and wrong. And when I did get my heart vessel I wasn’t sure what to make of all these conflicts. I’ve been wrestling with it all this time, like those two beasts fighting for the same scrap of flesh. So yes, perhaps I have been a contradiction, but I am not anymore. I have only one purpose now.”
“Perhaps when I have obtained Ayla’s heart vessel I shall understand.”
Kael shivered and his voice dramatically dropped to a very soft tone. “By then you’d wish you didn’t. Then you would know guilt, Cee. No, don’t bother asking me to define it, you couldn’t understand.”
Behind Kael the wall was shimmering, and without looking Cee realized Ayla must be emerging from the terminal, a response to her name being spoken. He paused thoughtfully and then his eyes flashed.
“You are decided then?”
“Yes,” Kael nodded resolutely. “And I’ll give you one chance to stand down. If you can’t help me, then stay at least stay clear. I gave you your awareness, Cee, don’t you doubt that I’ll just as easily take it!”
“You would remove the parasite you gave me?”
“For a start,” Kael’s eyes steeled. The moment seemed to pass over an eternity to Kael, to Cee it was just another moment.
“No, Kael, I cannot let you compromise us.”
It was over before it began. Cee took a step backwards as if anticipating an incoming blow, but instead Kael just reached up to a knob on his own chest and turned it. It remotely activated Cee’s battery module which sparked on his back and then with a loud crack burst into flames. Instinctively Cee flailed his arms backwards to extract the pack, at which point Kael gripped Cee’s chest panel and with expert dexterity unlocked the seal. The parasite container sprung out and rolled across the ground.
“No!” Ayla shrieked, but her voice didn’t register among the two automatons, and as she tried to run forward the cables snaking into her back panels tied her to the wall.
Cee’s eyes seemed to be moving in slow motion, registering the tumbling of the small cylinder full seconds after the actual occurrence. His motor functions were even slower, and as he tried to run to retrieve it he collapsed in a heap, unable to move his foot forward fast enough to catch his inclined center of gravity. Kael shook his head without any words and strode away into the dark.
Ayla was disconnecting some of the shorter-reaching cables from behind her, her fingers fumbling as she tried to identify which cables could be safely removed and which could not. Eventually all that remained attached to her had enough reach for her to rush out to Cee and drop to his side.
Cee’s head moved in small stuttering movements to look at Ayla and he tried to raise a hand to her but it wouldn’t lift the whole way.
“Oh Cee,” Ayla cried “what can I do?!” She looked around frantically looking for an answer that wasn’t there. “I can put the parasite back in.”
“It won’t matter,” Cee said slowly, each word a monumental task. Ayla understood, with his battery pack destroyed the parasite wouldn’t be able to interface with his systems anyway. It wasn’t a self-powering animating stimuli like her heart vessel. Ayla raised her head with a start.
“Cee, you were right,” she said tearfully as his own eyes were growing dimmer and dimmer. “I should have trusted you from the very beginning. But it’s alright, because I—I’m going to save you,” her voice quavered.
“I’m going to save you,” she said again, and this time her voice was more resolute. Cee’s eyes dimmed entirely and his head fell to the side. “I can’t progress in this alone. I—I just can’t. I’m going to bring you back and then you’ll just have to find a way to revive me,” she nodded to reaffirm the notion to herself as she began to unlock her chest panel while simultaneously reaching for the parasite on the ground and opening its jar.
“I don’t know how, but you’ll find a way, I know you will.” A door slid open and her heart vessel gleamed orange and red within her, its quadrants expanding and collapsing as it shone its power into her.
“I trust you, Cee,” she placed the opened parasite jar back into his chest and clicked it into place.
“I love you,” she unfastened her heart and with twitchy, stuttering movements pressed it into the jar, then she collapsed.
The parasite turned and latched itself onto the heart. Several moments passed in silence and then Cee’s body began shifting and alternating, recomposing itself with hidden panels and shedding its old ones. He became a little taller and broader, new gears were activated and spun greater expressiveness into his face. The tone of his copper grew more gray, and bit by bit he took on the appearance of Kael. As awareness flooded through his system he looked down at his chest and saw the heart and parasite united within. He smiled and then closed the jar.
“I’ve got it,” he said.
As I said in my post on Monday, my purpose with this story was to create a character that possessed only a single dimension. Obviously this character was Cee, and he was intended to represent cold deceit and nothing else. Perhaps at times he did and said things that appeared to others to be motivated by genuine compassion, but he only did so when he calculated that the other’s reactions would be for his own gain. Removing emotions from his actions was not actually part of the effort to make him more one-dimensional, though, rather I just felt that manipulation is most often a passionless action and ought to be represented as such. The perpetrator of it may be feeling other emotions on the side, but that which they do is entirely detached from the heart and is purely an act of cold, calculating simplicity. An excellent example of this would be Tony Wendice in Dial M for Murder. He says and displays a wide array of emotions, yet all of it is a mask that he implements as a tool for his calm, sinister schemes.