We were clanging and cranking the machines, up and down the old Spinal Line, first time we saw its face. It was small and grimy and, by its branding, female. A defect, plucked off the Inspection Line, bound for Recycling. Slipped through the gap of some fool daemon’s reclaiming sack. Tearing from its eyes. Bleeding from its nose. Hungering for parent, as our products are built to do.
We paid no heed. Grinding for quota, every one of us. And Besides, Recycling’s got its own daemons. They’d come around and snatch the defect before dawn raised its baleful lens on Rust City and sent us scrabbling for shadow. We were but twelve daemons, strutting the Spinal assembly—the rumbling belts, the pounding stamps, the grease traps—keeping the line in line. Twelve amalgams of metal and meat, suited for factory purpose, with no time for sidetracks. Today was shipping day, and by dawn’s clamor we’d stamp, seal, and ship twenty products cross-river to Glass City. Quota met. Bonus paid. Scabs enough to fill our furnace-guts twice over. Living grand.
Then, it was looking up at us, fingers atremble. She. Though such labels aren’t more than shipping orders to us androgynes. With our backhand raised, we said, “scram.”
She did no such thing, and it was then that we knew our folly. Those leaking eyes and those trembling fingers weren’t born of fright, but of fury. And with tiny hand on tiny hip, and tiny eyebrow cocked, her lips said without saying: why?
Drove a chill through our guts. There’s no why here. There’s only because.
Fool of a defect.
But something in her silent question threw us out of sorts, and with a snort of brimstone from our flaring nostrils, we became me. Eleven slaving daemons kept a-slaving, but there I stood, rooted. Singular.
And instead of dragging her to the vats, I watched myself scoop her up and toss her over the razor wire, into the junk pits outside. It was a fool’s effort—she’d expire by hunger, or jackrabid, the same as she would have by vat, only now for waste, and not reclamation. But I did it, and it was done. And when I showed her my back, me returned to we—with relief—and the line rumbled on.
But the quiver, it festered, and we knew with the certainty of corrosion that we’d be seeing that defect again.
Trawling day. Down by the docks, heaving rusted nets into the tar-slicked waters from midnight until the threat of dawn. Trawling a steady stream of raw makings from Glass City. Hands and feet, mostly. Gnarled with blood, ready to be grown into the next batch of products. We trawled until our pistons hissed and our tendons buckled. Then we hauled our booty to Collecting.
But Collecting we never made.
Midway through the junk pits, we spotted her. Cornered against the guts of a derelict machine, a half-dozen men closing in. Scavenger men—blades aglow under the pasty moon, nets crackling static. Another breath or three and she’d be trawled herself, then laundered and juiced, and sold to Recycling for bounty.
We paid no heed. Junk pits have their own daemons. They’d spike every scavenger in the lot for trespassing, hang their bodies from the Warning Wall. ‘Course, by then, she’d be dead. Even with that heat in her eye and that pipe a-swinging from her grubby hands. A fighter she may be, but scavengers are equal parts cunning and cruel, hunting for pleasure as much as profit.
We had booty of our own to cash—legitimate booty. So, we lumbered past with no regard for the slice of blade, nor the crackle of net.
We didn’t expect the clang of pipe. That’s what drew our attention. But rather than a snared defect, sliding to the launder-man, a pair of scavengers lay writhing in gore. Past the remaining four—each of them sweating with fright, now—we caught her glare head-on. The bitter curl of her lip said, again, without saying, why?
And again, through that silent query, her crafty virus took hold. Again, our nostrils wept sulfur. Again, we became me. And, instead of marching my booty to Collecting, I dropped it. Then I dispatched the scavengers with a swing of my meat-woven fist. Left the bodies for the junk pit daemons, scooped the defect under my arm, and made for Recycling.
She was my blunder to make right.
But halfway through the boundary marsh—a dagger’s pitch from the factory grounds—my hackles stiffened. I slid into the muck, and pressed a palm to the defect’s mouth.
Biting through the silence, a growl. Then another.
I was more fool than I’d known. Inventory checks weigh every shift. When raw makings and stamped products don’t balance, they let loose the hounds. In Rust City, not a stone of mass goes unaccounted.
Now, that truant mass hung from my arm. Me, with no excuse to spare—none the hounds would hear, anyhow. Cheaper to assume my guilt—recycle and regrow us both—than to weigh proof against pretext.
Over the hilltop, a trio of hounds prowled. Lean, and lithe, and livid. Eyes a-blazing, teeth a-gnashing. Fur clumped patchwork over grafted joints, wretched farce of their natural kin.
And a hundred times more deadly. I was twice their girth, and a half, but it only took one bite to sink their poison. Make a corpse of this fool of a daemon. So, I cranked my gut-payload open, and before I’d hinted my intentions, the defect clambered inside, and closed the trap herself, like it was her idea from the outset.
I rose from the muck.
The hounds circled. Sniffed. Breathed rot and refuse around my legs.
The defect’s face pressed against the grill. Her breathing came heavy, so I matched it to drown out the sound.
A hound nosed my gut. Eyed my grill.
The defect held her breath. My fingers twitched, anticipating a fierce and futile melee.
Then, a bugle sent the pack howling to the factory in pursuit of a fresh lead.
The defect echoed my sigh.
Even distant, the prowling hounds still obstructed my path to Recycling. And if I left this defect to roam, she might lure them back to me. Every breath was a risk, now.
So, I turned deeper into the rust, the grime, the filth. Into town.
Smog hung over cobbled alleys, pricked with light from flickering sconces. Rusted ladders peeled from stone walls like leper-flesh. The town’s heartbeat came dry and heavy. Clangs and moans and booms that rattled my guts, leaving me overwrought. Dawn was afoot. Lesser daemons scrabbled up the walls in search of their sleeping pods. Only the sentries still prowled. The hounds. And the halberdiers.
My own sweat filled my nostrils with reek. Tiny hands gripped my grill from the insides. The defect ogled and wheezed. I juked left, then right, maneuvering for solitude. Past the feeding lots, over the seven stewing canals swarming with halberdiers, and into the cell blocks. There, clinging to the moldy wall, the poster sketch of a Satisfactory Product, marked with all the inspection points. Twenty pale teeth. Two pleasing eyes. Meat on the legs for standing. Fingers and vocals for music-making. The factory dictum scrawled at the bottom.
“Tomorrow’s Children. Today.”
The defect stirred inside me. My gaze strayed upward, to the spot that said, “vocals.”
Neither of us earned merit for dwelling on Satisfactory, now.
I slipped into my cell—last door on the right—but not before taking a hard look down the alley.
Deserted. For now.
The solitude lent little solace. Exhaustion had me by the throat, but a hound on the hunt never sleeps.
I ate scabs upon waking.
Seeders flung the pods at my cell door, oozing and squirming with ripeness. I waited a ten-count before checking the alley for hounds, then I dragged the pods inside. A slice at the waist, and a dozen scabs scuttled out, dripping mucus. They leapt into my slack maw, one after the next. Purpose met—lucky bastard—though they still screamed on the way down.
Purpose isn’t always pleasant.
The defect watched and wheezed from the shelf. Then she knotted her brow and filled her eyes with reproach—demanded without saying it. Why?
My hunger wasn’t slaked, and I had no patience for questions. Besides, I wasn’t fitted for answering. Wasn’t fitted for serving any purpose but clanging and cranking machines. However, my orders said it should be done. I was a daemon. Nothing more. Even with her deft questions wire-crossing my perspectives. So, I waved my backhand and said, “because.” To hammer the point, I slit the second pod and swallowed the lot.
Her brow stitched tighter, and her question loomed louder than if she’d been fitted with vocals, like a Satisfactory Product. Why?
The whisper-tube belched from the wall. Out of its dripping muzzle came the daily orders. Inspection Line in twenty minutes. Double shift.
Inspection Line. The irony didn’t pass me by.
She got down, stuffed her head into the tube, then fired another damned query in my direction. But, just then, the twilight music drifted from across the river; through the cracks. Like wind through glass spires, calling the daemons to work. Every tendon and articulate in this daemon’s body popped, and in a half-breath, me became we again.
And we had work to do. Quotas to hit. Most of us were down there already, hitting. If we didn’t get in line, we’d be bound for Recycling.
Couldn’t bring the defect in tow. Not with the hounds on the hunt. Couldn’t dump her in the canals. Not with the halberdiers in the weeds. So, we left the door unlatched, and hoped she’d be gone upon our return.
And worse, she’d been scavenging. Rust-bitten plates strapped to her calves and forearms. Steam tubes sprouting from every hole in her shirt. Grease trap propped on her head. Lumbering around with a heavy gait. She looked ridiculous, and we said as much. Wasn’t until then, as she tore it all loose and sulked into the corner with jeweled eyes, that we understood her scheme.
She was trying to be like us.
Us. Frozen in that wicked uncertainty between burnish and bio. Built for laboring, for shadow, for silence.
Nothing ever tried to be like us.
In the brooding quiet, her breathing came with a struggle. She was pure bio, like every factory model before, not even fitted with a scavenger’s lung grafts. Rust City air wasn’t meant for products long-staying, all heavy and thick with smoke.
Defect was dying.
A sideways glance proved she knew it. A cough. A spittle of black bile. And that same angry-eyed question. Why?
As if we knew.
As if I knew.
This time, hardly smelt the brimstone.
A howl lit the alley. Hounds, on approach. And me, all but begging for my turn in the vats. Sharing my cell with this unaccounted mass, whose stink, no doubt, pervaded the whole block. This meddling mass, who was dying anyhow.
Madness, this was.
Time to write its end.
I shoveled her into my gut-payload and cranked it shut, before she knew to protest, then slipped into the alley. Hounds were closing in from the canals, so I took the roundabout circuit. Dawn was spent, and even through the smog, the sun stabbed at my eyes. Steam bled from my joints. The city was ashen. Silent, but for the hounds on my heel.
I clambered down the old chute, sloshed through the flooded inner city. Leech-daemons gnashed at my ankles, drawing streams of oil and blood through the water. I scaled the mud bank at the factory’s end, heaving for breath.
From the tenor of their growls, the hounds had lost my scent. But that damned defect; , she gleaned my intent at the factory gates, murdered my cover with a bout of thrashing inside my grill-gut. Three vicious clangs, and the hounds were keeping pace again.
Into the factory. Fabricators hunched in shadow, corpse-stiff until dusk’s knell. Winches swung like meat hooks from the cavernous ceiling. A turn past Bone Growth, a hustle through Organs, and there I stood—panting and spitting—above a half-dozen vats that churned all through the dirty daylight.
I pried open my gut-grill and plucked the defect from my hollows. There was bile on her chin, and water in her eyes. Again, her sneering lips were asking—demanding—that same damn question, without sound. But I had no answer—not now, then, nor ever—and the hounds were howling near Bone Growth. It was either her or me meeting the bottom of this pit. And she was dying anyhow.
I stared into the vat. All that grinding and chewing, serving its purpose. World without end.
No different was I.
I tossed her in.
But in the short breath of her fall, my brain hitched on the memory of her fierceness, her wit, her stupid charade.
Trying to be like us.
And in spite of my daemon anatomy, nothing if not androgynous, I couldn’t shake the sudden notion that I was a mother all the same, turning out products night after night, albeit, a far cry from the ways of humankind.
Products like her.
Then I watched with supreme angst—and supreme relief—as my other hand snatched her from the churning blades, even as they hacked her ruddy hair. And with this troublesome defect under my arm, I fled the grounds faster than a raging jackrabid. At the crossroads, she jabbed a colluding thumb toward the direction of her desire.
That’s when I knew that it was this here daemon that was the grimmest defect of all. Because it was at the docks—like she directed—and not the cities refuge I scrabbled, where we scavenged a derelict raft and pushed off for the shimmering dome of Glass City, in search of parents hungering for child.
For the first time since enduring her glare, it wasn’t why on the creature’s muted lips, but finally.
The dome stretched three hundred meters into the tar-stained water—a flickering wall that would’ve lent me the shivers if I wasn’t already seized with them. Seized, because Rust City was fading into smog at our backs, and as such, I was coming to terms with the unlikelihoods.
My returning alive, for example.
Daemons don’t cross the wall. Daemons work the lines, ship the products, recycle the defects. Daemons don’t see Glass City with bare eye—and they sure as hell don’t walk its streets with bare foot. I could hear the question in her quirked eyebrow—her, the unlikeliest of captains, wheezing at the bow, atop a pile of trawl bags—and now, more than ever before, I had no answer.
“We just don’t,” I said. Would’ve sent her alone in search of parents to call her own. I swear it. But the state of this damned raft. Tiller, all bent as it was. It wouldn’t drift any way but downstream without my legs doing the kicking.
She didn’t like my answer. Crossed her arms all flushed and piqued. But just then, the wall was bearing down hard, and second thoughts were percolating, along with thirds and fourths. And with a hiss and a pop, we were through.
Nothing was the same.
The sun was bright and blinding. The waters, clear as ice. The air was light, and clean, and too thin. Behind, Rust City was an inconvenient smudge on the watercolor horizon. Dead on, knots of spires rose from the water’s edge, catching the sun and flinging it into my eyes.
Must’ve been five minutes we gawked, she and I, before I savvied that the wind was burning my insides. I rasped at the thin air like a faulty scab. Defect looked downright mended, though, so I clamped my maw shut to mute the sound. Banished it from my mind.
Raw makings drifted past, toward Rust City. Same kind we’ve been trawling forever and an hour, but seeing them now, something lurched in my gut. Those fingers. That foot. How’d they come about being separated from their owners? Why was there always a glut to spare?
The darkness in her eyes said she was mulling over the same doubts. The grim set of her lips said, too late to turn tail now. We drifted a-field of the crystal jetty, moored on a beach of shimmering sand that crunched underfoot—hers soft, mine raucous. Then she snatched a trawl bag from the raft and flung it over my head—like a dock master’s robes, but for the stink. She nodded, like she’d planned the whole charade.
It was like so, her tiny hand stuffed into mine, that we slipped into Glass City in hopes for an end to this folly.
There was no questioning why they called it Glass City. Every building was cast from the stuff—shifting solid blue, to pale pink, to burnt orange. Figures flitting, wraith-like, on the inside, their privacy a case of the proprietor’s whim. Fog stretched, thin as gauze, over the black-mirror streets. Glass bridges wrung the skies, and by the whisper of wind over crystalline pipes, I knew it was from those apexes that the music-making spread. Near twilight. Every day. From this far below, the haunting sound filled my body with a foul unease.
Near the central square, foot traffic thickened. Each unit the same. Two parents. One child. Parents murmuring to each other, eyes glassed, ears flickering with strange magics. Children humming to themselves. Not a soul took notice of us, like they could only see only what they were expecting to see.
Defect squeezed my finger. We were fifty meters down a slithering alley and, through the glimmer of glass. I gawked at a genuine daemon. Here, in Glass City. Different, but unmistakable. Pale flesh and metal where mine shone black. Milky eyes where mine burned red. But its colors weren’t the cause of the defect’s disquiet.
The daemon’s hands and feet were nailed to the storefront. Its mouth was agape, and inside it hung a luminous sign boasting specs and bulk pricing. Those alabaster eyes were staring straight into never-after.
Along its side, another. Then another. All slaved to the merchant booth.
A ruckus carried us deeper to where a lesser daemon with burly grafts leaned heavy into the wall, banging its skull against a red stain, moaning a grisly tune. Two snow-pale daemons with meaty heads and grilled guts, not unlike my own, bore down from a crossing alley. Scooped up the misfiring daemon, and dragged it into the glassy bowels of the city—off to whatever breed of Recycling they know in these whereabouts.
With the moans still fading into the daily grind, passersby muttered in a foreign tongue—though their scorn was clear as glass. Only words I caught were, “faulty worker process.”
Wasn’t until those ghostly daemons were long out of sight that I’d pieced together a truth or two. If this had been Rust City, those daemons would’ve been me. With a shady glance at the defect clutching my paw, a pang of shame stabbed at my chest. With a backward glance at the storefront, a darker notion poisoned my skull.
All breeds of enslavement, there are. Some more knowing than others.
But we didn’t have time for such defective thoughts, so I whisked her up, and hustled to the central square. It was a place of converging—if we’d find a needing parent anywhere, it would be here.
Factory posters always said, “demand outstripped supply.” But even so—even here, where the press of the crowd made me dizzy in the skull—we couldn’t spot a lonely parent from the lot. Every couple was steering their humming child this way and that, like figureheads on the bow. And every couple was making a point not to be caught glimpsing any child but their own—same reason, I reckoned, my own defect warranted no scrap of attention.
My own defect. Damaging thoughts, those. Especially with how she gaped at all those parents, eyes a-glow with hunger, lips a-quiver with the wanting. Every product wakes in need of a family. A daemon I was. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nevermore.
But a family she couldn’t have if a family we couldn’t find, and this forage was proving futile. I was fixing to disown the whole plan when another squeeze directed my gaze. Through the surging crowd, and down a skinny street, was a couple, standing, clutching hands with watery eyes, staring at all the people more charmed than themselves.
We followed them into the up-town, where the mirror streets shifted to midnight blue, and the winds dragged a stranger melody from the pipes overhead. We followed them up a hundred curving steps to a black glass door cut into an ice-shard tower.
That’s where I left her.
Wasn’t none of my business—I told myself, halfway around the square—what all that water was doing in her eyes on our parting. Wasn’t my worry—I scolded myself while wheezing against a red-stained wall—whether she’d dwell on this defect of a daemon after I was gone across the water. Or dead on my return.
Wasn’t my concern—I said to my own ears—that down this very alley, those two daemons from before were now acquiring a product—male, by its branding—and hauling him toward the river. To where the raw makings sailed a-bleeding toward Rust City, for growing into fresh products.
The boy’s parents—they were letting it happen. Instigating the handoff with angry eyes, and that same brand of tongue I’d heard before. Faulty child process.
It was clear, then, why demand outstripped supply. In time, defects arise in even the most Satisfactory of products. Parents are wont to find fault.
The child. He was screaming.
Until he wasn’t.
Then I was flying over those black-mirror streets toward the up-town, sweating, and wheezing, and strangled with the fear that I was already too late.
Midway up those curving steps, my fears were realized. From the tower’s gaping door, pitched the defect. Limbs a-flailing. Bleeding from her nose.
Deep inside my furnace-gut, a raw and bitter angst was forged.
The parents stood basking in fury, and though their words were halfway foreign, I heard them clear enough. A product was meant for producing, and producing meant music-making, and music-making meant vocalizing. That made this product the worst brand of defect. The unsounding.
The closest parent raised a clenched fist, and from it sprang a blade of shimmering sharpness. The time for my standing by and watching had definitely expired.
I took the remaining stairs in fives, and shed my robes, hoping I’d pass as a Recycling daemon arrived for duty. I snatched her from under the descending blade and said, “faulty child process,” and made like I was hauling her to the river for a timely mutilation.
But there was something wrong in how I said it. Or how my flesh and metal was off-color. Or how my furnace was wheezing from the too-thin air. Whatever the tell, there was no mistaking the suspicion in those parents’ glares. Defect must’ve seen it too, because the look she gave couldn’t mean but one thing. Run.
And run we did.
At the edge of the up-town, I slumped against a purpled wall and heaved for breath. I looked down on my poor bleeding defect, and this time it was me—this loathsome, disobeying daemon—that caught the mist in the eyes when I said to her, “why?”
And the set of her jaw told me clear as the smogless air that, finally, I was asking the right question. That, in itself, was answer enough. Nobody was doubting what was, nor what had forever been. Nobody was asking, why.
We fled for the beach. Our feet slapped the black mirror, echoing through streets, unnervingly vacant . Beyond the square, we spotted a lone child wandering aimlessly. By its branding: male. By the gape of his eyes: drunk with some kind of fear. I was anxious to make distance from this whole nightmare, but the defect stopped me with a force I couldn’t withstand.
Knee to the street, so as not to arouse his fear, I called to the child. I bade him come with us. Flee this place. Find sanctum on our raft.
He stared, his mouth agape.
Then, with a wretched slowness, the slitting of his eyes betrayed our mistake. The wail from his lips proved it.
This product was just as I had been. Frightful. Complicit. A worker process. Pure bio, this one, but all of us are living, and all of us are machines just the same. Only matters how you reckon.
Not two breaths after his scream had ebbed, every surface in the city drained its color to clear, and every parent and child and pale-fleshed daemon from here to the tip-top of the up-town turned their angry eyes upon us.
And the hunt was on.
Hounds howled from crystal kennels. Halberdiers clambered from glass perches. All dark metal and gleaming poleaxes, not an inch of flesh amongst them. Gaslight eyes flickered from deep in those hollow helmets—brainless, some say, but only those that haven’t witnessed them cleaving their prey with the cruelest of guiles.
Blades flashed down every street. Every alley. We turned twice with luck. Once without. A halberdier’s ax whistled, and all I could do was muscle between blade and defect. Blood spurted from my shoulder. When I glanced down, my arm was vacant from its joint.
We dropped into a sluice. Dodged a flurry of steel. Ran harder. But my wheezing was compounding, and my furnace-gut burned near overload, and twice I had to pause to keep from shutting down.
Then we were out. The sand crunched under our feet, and the raft was just as we’d left it, knock-knocking against the shore. The hounds and the halberdiers were closing in, but freedom was at hand, and damned if I’d concede to the sneer on her lips and turn my back on all those products, all those daemons, all those why’s. Freedom was at hand.
Besides, there was nothing I could do. Nothing I could’ve ever done. I’m a daemon. A worker process. A thing for the shadows that has no say over question, nor answer. A thing that does what it’s made for doing. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nevermore.
And like a stamp on my resolve, music crawled from the city’s apexes—from the lips of a thousand children doing as they were told. It was the same song as every eve. Wind through glass spires. Every bone, and graft, and rivet in my body cracked.
And in a vengeful swell, me became we again.
Until something stopped it dead.
Not a gentle nudge, but a heel to my clawed toe. When I scowled down at her, it was the first time all over again, on the old Spinal Line. Tiny hand on tiny hip. Tiny eyebrow cocked. And I saw then, without a shred of doubt, it was she that had been the burly one this whole time. And me, with all this brawn and girth, had been weak. Complicit.
All of us, complicit.
And by her crafty virus, whose origins I’ll never know, the why’s festered in me. I looked across the water, toward Rust City. A bug of an idea crawled into my damaged skull. Nothing special about this here daemon, save for the questioning my defect had inflicted. Could’ve happened to any of us. To all of us.
Maybe there was something we could do, after all.
By the smirk on her lip, defect was thinking the same.
She pilfered a chain from the mooring. I slung her onto my shoulder and plunged into the fray. The hounds and halberdiers stood so shocked to see us heading toward them that we won a quick jump. She maimed a pair of daemons with her chain, and with naught but a fang-bite to my thigh, we were through. First stairs we found, we scaled. Higher, higher, until the air hung so thin, the black spots on my vision outnumbered the rest, and my furnace-gut sputtered and waned.
Then, higher still.
At the apex, the bridges sprayed like sidelong waterfalls, and the shot down filled my feverish head with vertigo. We ducked into an alcove, where a music-maker’s console crammed the nook. She worked the dials—was born with the talent—while I brought my awkward grill lips to the mouthpiece. At full bore, I bellowed the word she taught me down at the factory, a million years ago yesterday.
And like corrosion through the junk pits, the why virus spread. The hounds took pause. The halberdiers gave thought. The children scratched their skulls, and rolled the question on their tongues. And through their own mouthpieces, the virus spread some more.
Across the water, where the music reached clear as glass, the very same scene, doubtless, unfolded. Proof came without delay. A chorus of daemon shouts hurling straight from Rust City. A chorus of burning why’s. The virus spread some more, until finally, every daemon and child in Glass City drew silent as one. Turned on the parents. Awaited response.
Their answers had better be good.
This daemon, alas, will never know. With a heave and a sigh, my body met the stairs, and stained them red. A mark signifying my end. For it only takes one bite from the hound’s maw to sink the poison, and without smog to breathe, nor blood left to pump, here I await, expiry.
But the salted stuff that falls on my face, leaking from my defect’s eyes, tells me that nothing was for naught. Every product wakes craving family, and for a breath or two, I was hers. I’d commit the same folly all over again just to see those trembling lips that say, without saying, don’t go.
© 2020, Derrick Boden