This is my contribution, based on a piece of flash fiction that first appeared on this blog a few years back. This much longer version has never seen publication and is exclusive to this post. If you like it, please link to this post and link to Crossed Genre's site. Thank you.
A TALE OF THE MODULAR MEN)
by Matthew Sanborn Smith
We raised artificial livestock on the farm where I grew up, selling and bartering mish-mash animals as pets or parts for tourists. Many of our brothers regarded our work as folk-art. Those cosmopolitan space/time-farers bought mass-produced modules by the millions. But the connoisseur module scavenger knew backwater planets held rough gems well worth the increase over factory price. A sleek and contoured heart designed by an engineer in a sterile lab seemed perfect in theory. A heart extracted from an animal raised from an evolved and proven line of biomechs, though it might look shabby and organic, had been tested in an actual being for years before hitting the marketplace. My mother made sure the offworld parts scrounger knew he’d discovered the find of a lifetime, doubtless worth a prince’s ransom. But, she admitted, simple people such as ourselves had little need for so much. The buyer always agreed to the deal, perhaps supposing he’d put something over on us. Her full-bodied rural beauty may have helped.
In the heat season when our white sun melted slow moving men where they lingered, the animals fed in the fields of plastic and carbon fibers which grew wild since my great-grandfather scattered their seeds across the land as a boy. Among our creatures lived a beaked thing we children dubbed Horus, too underdeveloped to be sold off in the earliest market day I could remember. At four years old I learned my first skills at solar collector repair when Horus began sputtering out in the yard. My older sister Doro came to me in tears with his quivering body in her arms.
“Please help him, Manny,” she begged. The little thing did look pathetic, a tattered runt that seemed close to death. Our hand, Roberto, fixed such things but that week he carried out his annual citizen service on Ointon. There he plugged into the Motherport along with nine-hundred and ninety-nine others. They held hopes of coming one step closer to the Überconstruct who would find true meaning in the Universe and purpose for us all.
From the shed, I dug up Roberto’s thinFingers and longEyes. I’d watched him work his technomagic a hundred times, wiling away cold season afternoons. I’d never made any repairs myself. Nothing in my experience led me to believe I could help poor Horus. Looking into Doro’s wet eyes, however, I had no choice but to try. Something happened to me when I ported in Roberto’s modules. Odd feelings of half-formed muscle memory that didn’t belong to me guided me through circuits I could never have understood by myself. I sat on Roberto’s cot beneath wisps of nylon cobwebs and saw a confusion of highways mere molecules wide stretching forever. My eyes took me to what must have been the most likely trouble spots. My new fingers, steady as the Western Moon with their pico shocks and gyros, traversed the destruction on those tiny fields and worked to repair them almost of their own accord. When I thought too hard, I made a mess of things. When I relaxed and did what felt right, I drew atoms from my own body to rebuild a thousand broken routes with simple elegance. My enhanced mind knew that Horus had fallen from a short height.
“You can’t play with Horus on the stone wall any longer,” I told Doro. I couldn’t see anything on her scale with my borrowed eyes but I felt her long silence and her tattered yellow frock brush against my knee.
“Okay,” she said, so quietly an older set of ears might not have heard. My older sister sounded, for the first time, like a little girl to me.
Through a long afternoon of limited trials and few errors, I gave life once more to Horus. My grandfather praised my young genius. So he didn’t know. He couldn’t have shared my skills. Maybe no one could. Other people’s modules, used with love and for the divine purpose they were built, held their memories, and these I could feel like no one else could.
Horus might have gone on to be slaughtered the following season and turned into a fine splayed ribcage module but by the time he matured, Doro and I had become so attached to him that we couldn’t let him go.
“It’s time to turn over the little thing, baby,” mother said to Doro one humid evening on our front porch. “I’ll make you a beautiful dress with the cloth we’ll afford.” Doro stood as if to gather Horus but instead broke into hysterics. She threw herself to the ground and pleaded for his life as if pleading for her child’s. Mother remained unmoved. She stepped toward Doro with one arm outstretched but I threw myself between them. I pulled Doro’s head to my small chest as if to protect her, though I imagine it looked as if I sought my own sanctuary in her shadow. I utilized every one of my mother’s sales tricks against her.
“Has my sister asked for a thing in her life?” I asked, bent and wide-eyed. “Not a dress, not a toy, not a scrap of food more than what she’s been given. Can’t we let her keep the only bit of joy she has out here, away from any friend?” I, of course, exaggerated my sister’s saintliness but even at this age I understood that people buy not from logic but from emotion. I blathered on, unrelenting; not for little Horus, but for Doro who tore my young heart out with each sob.
Mother stepped back with a stern lecture on the care and feeding of a pet as opposed to a farm animal. I don’t think the strength of my argument impressed her so much as my ability to apply what I’d picked up from her. Horus’ life had been spared. I attached a plastiflex nerve-skeleton to its one I/O port and we added any scrap module we could get our hands on to the poor thing’s body. Our pet became our pet project.
As I grew taller, time for my shed experiments shrank as the family needed every strong back to stay solvent. The days promised hours of blistering, module-damaging work. We hauled and ground up hundreds of pounds of feed blocks. We cleared trees whose rootwires crept beneath the house and scattered signals, or grew beneath the fields, squelching appetites. I often got stuck with the mind-numbing task of herd sculpting. I spent months stressing the animals’ more marketable organs for development. I bound limbs and pruned circuits to atrophy unwanted growths where generations of breeding fell short.
But the evenings of my youth brought time for cool relaxation. Mother would make us remove and clean our filth-caked parts in a trough of nanobeads on the back porch before allowing us inside. There, our spring coil muscles wound down after a farmer’s dinner of microbial assemblers and raw materials. Grandfather might tell tales of the Within Wars while grandmother stitched new tools together for Roberto, string by string. In the harsh, smoky light of the chemical fires, I would switch faces for fun with my little sister, Esme, the update in our latest edition of the family. I laughed whenever I put on Esme's face. Everything seemed so pinched up, like my whole head had eaten a lemon. My own face drooped from Esme like old howlerbug jowls.
The modules of our forefathers hung from the rafters in the common area of our home and we children would make up exotic stories about their uses and owners. A simple rakeHand would become the claws of an ancient modular druid king under my telling. Doro transformed the remains of a long dead uncle’s liverbox into the fused hearts of two tragic lovers and little Esme ate up every bit of it. The stories would go on like this until one of the family-proud adults overheard and forced fact upon us before sending us to bed. I slept hard in those days. Never again after that.
Late one morning about that time, I finished turning the old ground on the edge of the farm, wearing the tractorLegs and plowBottom of my late father when Grandfather walked out to check on my progress. He usually wouldn’t come out this far but I saw he used my own young legs and enjoyed the ride. After some small talk about the land, he said:
“That’s quite a game you play with your little sister there, Manny, trading faces. Gave me an idea, though. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind if I were to borrow your mug sometime.”
“Um, sure. If you want.”
“It’s my eyes, you see. Ain’t what they used to be. I can still work okay, but a guy needs to get out and have a beer with his friends, you know what I mean? These eyes aren’t so good for driving at night.”
“It’s fine, Grampa,” I said. It never occurred to me to ask him why he didn’t just want my eyes. The next day I understood that the face as a unit made it easier to meet young women at bars. I should have told my grandmother, but the memories of a hundred kisses, painted and perfumed, would leave me drunk in the morning and addicted for life. The next few times he asked for my face, I handed it over eagerly.
Days after I first loaned out my face, I caught Doro washing her hands in the bathroom. Her hands sifted through the beads, her icy-pink polish unmistakable. But my grandmother’s face looked back at me in surprise from the mirror.
“Uh-oh,” I said. The good times had come to an end. Gram caught on without my telling. It made me sad to see my sister like that, her youth and beauty gone with none of the life lived in between the first face and this one. Her expression as she turned made me realize I must look much the same to her.
Grandmother met her husband at the bar that night wearing Doro’s face, it being an image-spitter for her own former countenance. After a few minutes of sputtering discomfort, my grandfather found a passion he’d thought long dead. As the cracks and fissures of her features had disappeared, so erased were the decades of love’s servitude under her ownership. For an evening he felt her a being to be pursued once again, a woman he had to live up to, rather than a permanent mortgage on a used-up product. All the years of resentment and dry-rotted love between them vanished. Withered fingertips caressed voluptuous lips. Third generation teeth tenderly chewed pliable young ears. They did things which two people with borrowed faces should never do.
With our original faces back in place, Doro and I could not look at one other the next day. The pains she took to avoid me made me suspect that my talent for module memory was not mine alone and this made me feel doubly ill. Not only knowing what I knew, but knowing anyone else, much less Doro, knew it too. I took my meals in my room. When I caught Grampa leering at Doro and when I saw my grandmother eye me in an ungrandmotherly way, those meals came back up.
Grampa came back to me that night after supper, begging again for the loan of my face. I’d been raised not to argue with my elders, so although I never wanted to loan him my face again, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. What might come next? My hands? Might my grandmother ask for my sister’s breasts?
Our grandparents borrowed our faces again that night and every night after. As mortified as Doro and I felt, we couldn’t disobey them. Each morning I cleansed my face until it burned raw and red. I went faceless in the privacy of my room. Esme asked to play our little game every so often. I refused and refused again until I yelled at the poor innocent and she bawled to shake the foundation of our home. Mother would get angry at me but Gram always intervened on my behalf.
By now Horus’ shape had become much more humanoid, his original form pared down and stuffed within the chest of his new body, the very ribcage that mother had once envisioned. As I grew more isolated from my own family, I added a cheap bootleg conversamodule from an antique infotainer to Horus’ growing brain. I plugged it into a dusty old voicebox that I found stored away in the attic. From beyond the reclamation heaps, my great- great Aunt Consuela’s voice spoke to me in my room about the advantages of using Huarte’s Brand FishSoap and hacking a man’s emoter to true devotion in seventeen easy steps.
Through my grandfather’s ears, I heard my grandparents one night in their room. They no longer bothered to leave the house. Why should they? I started drinking alcohol borrowed from the cabinet in the family room after everyone else retired for the night. I applied it externally in the morning to remove an odd and unpleasant taste from my lips that I wouldn’t identify until full adulthood.
My grandmother passed away eight months later, taken in her sleep when her smoker’s lungs finally stopped producing smoke. My grandfather called me to his bedroom door, his tears streaming down my face.
“She never asked for new modules,” he said. “She always said that if Fate Assembler had wanted us here longer, She would have supplied our parents with better parts. A foolish woman. A stupid, stupid woman.”
He handed Doro’s face to me and asked me to return with his wife’s. The exchange with the old man proved to be the most awkward of my life, but only because I hadn’t yet spoken to my sister. Doro looked as shocked to see me with her face in my hands as if I’d held out her menstrual module to her.
“Grandmother has died,” I offered as my explanation. Doro gasped and tore our grandmother’s visage from her head, throwing it to the floor. She stepped into her room and slammed the door. I picked up Gram’s face and left my sister’s in its place.
After the funeral, Doro left home in the middle of the night. I don’t think she wanted to be in the same house as the old man now that she found herself the sole owner of her beauty once more. I think too, sometimes, about what her face held for her when she put it back on. Did she feel grandmother’s death through it as I felt the remembered kisses that my grandfather received? If so, what must have it been like for a living person to feel death and then move on?
A lifetime lay ahead of me to forget everything that happened and the seasons rolled on regardless. I grew accustomed to Aunt Consuela’s voice and let Horus become Hora. She became my life’s work over the years, and I took to using only the finest offworld modules within my economic grasp to develop her. I could have altered her forever, but I had to stop. There comes a time in a non-born construct’s life, if she’s ever to become anything more than a mere bot, her maker must bring his work to a halt and give her a couple of undisturbed years. Time is needed for a consciousness to knit itself into existence from her constituent parts.
Doro and I never spoke, but through her needleblurbs to Esme, I learned that my older sister had gone east. She’d taken her knowledge of farm grown modular systems and parleyed it into a company known for its quality and innovations. Doro helped turn small time farming into big industry, putting some family farms in her part of the country out of business. Her work affected us as well to a lesser extent as demand for the old-fashioned went down. We let Roberto go as money got tighter.
Paolo, Esme’s school friend from the neighboring land, nudged his way into our lives at about that time. He wore his modules to scrap, doing his own chores in double-time most days, before coming to our place to lend his many hands. He found payment in suppers, sitting next to Esme in that strange silence the two of them shared. So young, and yet so much went unspoken.
I asked Hora for her hand in marriage. She had been my closest companion since childhood, closer than my own family members as I found deep relationships with them to be unbearable. Hora had her own mind now, as strong as mine, and didn’t care for some of the imported modules I’d installed. She didn’t closet her blonde hair; she sold it off.
“I don’t like standing out among everyone else,” she told me in tears when I nearly overloaded my voicebox in anger. And what could I do but tell her I loved her, whatever parts she used? Hora took her parts from local farms and vendors, eschewing peddlers with the latest offworld fashions. She traded her thin pale lips for a pair more full and dark. Her new cheeks were rounded and soft. Between the time I asked her to marry me and the time she said yes, her resemblance to my family had grown disturbing.
I didn’t see Doro again until Esme’s wedding, some fifteen years after she’d run away. Had our grandfather still been alive, I might not have seen her even then, but he’d given up on module replacements himself, after losing my grandmother’s love for a second time. Doro had become a woman with a grace both matured and refined, untouched by the stretch and relaxation that deforms those women hyper-aged by marriage and childbirth. We didn’t embrace at the shuttle pick-up. We barely spoke each other’s names as I led her porter disk to the bed of my old truck and we didn’t say another word after that.
Esme’s wedding was enchanting. My mother outdid herself, creating something white, golden and magical on our meager budget. My daughter sang like a dying nightangel for our joined families as Esme rode up the aisle on a snow-white steed formed by the fusing of some of our families’ combined livestock. The tables at the outdoor reception glowed by firefly lamps. Candied doves peeled themselves open for us with the help of their robotic exoskeletons. We danced to the music of our own squeezeboxLungs and bows drawn across vocalstring modules purchased for this day.
As the night wore on, I went into the house to replenish the drinks. We’d stocked up on carbonated oils for the occasion, flavored with orange, salmon, and alder. With an armload of bottles, I turned to find Doro in the pantry doorway, our uncle’s old liverbox hanging in silhouette behind her. She startled me and I looked straight into her eyes for the first time since childhood. Her look suggested everything that hadn’t been spoken between us for all those silent years.
Bottles smashed upon the dark wood floor. I walked through shards of dripping glass and I took her head in my hands. Letting our facial memories take over, we kissed like we had always kissed before. We kissed like we had never kissed before. In shame, I had long ago put the thoughts of those thick, firm lips from my mind. And too, the warm softness of her cheek; fine hairs invisible to a brother, taken for granted by a lover. She was mine for just this one heartbeat in eternity. The single moment declaring the end of the chase.
Doro left in the night, like she had so many years ago. I slipped into Hora’s fresh bed, she, sleeping off an early evening drunk. Her gentle snore warmed the room. I removed my face, and placed it in the sock drawer of my bedside table where, my friends tell me, it is the appropriate place for a married man’s pornography.