False Idol

We must die in the desert.


We must die in the desert.

She signs it again.

He carries the glass child across the sand without looking at her.  The sun that flashes off her skin hurts his eyes. Missing the signs shaped by her insistent hands is a side benefit.

He’s thirsty.  The fact has progressed from a novel notion to an obsession, and then, as it continues to be ignored, it lapses back into fatalism.  The glass girl never sleeps. No eyes to close, no dreams in her head, at least none he can see when he looks at the stars through her skull.

Now he occupies himself with avoiding the sparks of light that reflect into his eyes from her round, unformed shoulders, her baby-fat cheeks, her stubby fingers as clear and mobile as water. She’s the size of a two-year-old, but much lighter than a human child.  He attends to his footing, no insignificant thing. His direction is of less concern – none, in fact, so long as he aims more or less away from where he’s been. At best he can hope, as his burden demands, to die in the desert.  The precise coordinates of that inevitability are the only uncertainty left. The only part of his fate still in his control is this completely pointless attempt to maintain the uncertainty as long as he can.

His lost love’s voice is in his head, though she never had a voice he could hear. He can still see her ivory hands fluttering with silent laughter.

  Foolish.  Goddamned foolishness.

As a boy scratches his name on the bottom of a favorite doll’s foot, he defaced her to make her his.  Tenderly he taught her to swear.

 You prolong your suffering to spite the people who caused it.  It’s fucking stupid. No, it’s not activism, it’s just stupid.

 Criticism of her makers had not come naturally to her.  It was neither permitted nor expressly forbidden; the words were simply omitted from her lexicon.  They were his gifts to her: words, the worst words he knew. Obscenities, blasphemies and dissidences, every fleshly slur, every dirty rhyme, every bitter slogan lifted out of texts from freer times.  He poured them into her, jailbroke her with his gutter tongue.

He looks down at the child through the reflections.  There are too many points of similarity between his lover and the misborn creature in his arms.  The sole saving separation is the glass girl’s impassive, inexorable commitment to his death.

Even the militia didn’t demand that.  No one is executed anymore. He read old prison records with ghoulish bewilderment, wondering at the hundreds of names, puzzling over the crimes.  What is there today that a man would kill for? And what authority would compound his error by executing a second potential consumer? There is only one crime now, and only one sentence.  Under that law, a thousand interpretations, one of which was written especially for him.

Exile isn’t rare, precisely.  Men are no more virtuous than they’ve ever been.  Their sins have simply been refurbished, repackaged and sold back to them with any one of twelve designer faceplates.  But there will always be those who misuse the products they buy – really only rent, for as long as both should live. As long as flesh is mortal and plastic is not, true possession can only be a temporary illusion.

So it proved.  When the militia came they left him his clothes, his cards, even his money.  But his systems, his screens, the expensive toys that kept him comfortable and connected, those they took, down to the tiniest drive.  They would be stripped, reformatted and resold after all trace of him had been wiped from their memories.

Like her.  He can imagine it now – had imagined it, with increasing frequency in proportion to his growing love for her.  He’d seen her lying in the directionless LCD glow, fat cables protruding from chest, fingers, head, violating her in ways he would never have dreamed, no matter what they accused him of.  He’d pictured them polishing her pate, rubbing out his fingerprints, replacing the labels he had peeled off and shipping her alongside her identical twins to new homes, where she would wake remembering nothing of him.

Two years ago, when this infatuation was young and intoxicating, he had coded his tools with delirious fervor, certain he was saving her from an immortality worse than any death.  Built a slave like millions of other units, not even knowing the words to express rebellion… he could release her from that, and make it impossible for anyone to put shackles on her again.

He closes his eyes.  The sun coming off the sand makes livid patterns on the backs of his eyelids.  A weird glyph, meaningless. In his dim room he saw the flash of such unreadable words across her ivory skin, the warning lights slithering down her arms as his code rewrote her.  It sent errant requests and drained power from strange places, letting important security routines get lost in the hollows of her body. When it was through, some of the lights didn’t come back on, but she woke, she raised her head, she jokingly asked for a glass of water and he laughed with relief and began the second, infinitely harder step of her reprogramming: teaching her how to be free.

She learned as quickly as he had expected, demanded new words by the list every day.  He had highlighted half his meager stock of history books inside of a month, and then resorted to watching overproduced specials on ancient wars, feverishly taking notes.

“These are ways to say ‘wrong.’”

“This one means ‘gun,’ – what?  It’s an old weapon. And this one means ‘union.’  And this one means ‘slave.’”

“This is every compound swear word I know and thirteen I made up.”

They came up with hand-signs for their new words, many obscenely literal gestures that she had to hide from his friends.  These became a passionate pidgin that they signed behind strangers’ backs, him swallowing giggles and her struggling to still the birdlike flutters of her laughing hands.


    Capitalist cocksucker.

    I love you.  Fascist butt-pirate.

    I adore you, you perfect idiot. There’s nothing in this world but you.

They can’t have erased his absurdities from her mind.  As soon as his virus tore through her, taking write-protection, passwords and firewalls with it, she started writing her own code, wiping out drives full of security features and filling them up with his puerile endearments.  He gloried in it, loved knowing that they were inseparable, that her makers would have to replace her discs, destroy her entirely to make her forget him.

 Walking through the desert now, the knowledge makes him weep.  He doesn’t try to shield his face from the glass girl; she stops her frantic signing to stare up at him when his tears fall on her head.  With thirsty desperation, he lifts a large drop from her brow on the tip of his finger and sticks it in his mouth. The salt makes his swollen tongue sting.  He stops crying. He hasn’t the water to waste.

He tries to turn his thoughts away from the destruction that was his one real gift to his lover, that he once cheered as an improvement on life without him.  Only stubbornness keeps him going now, and only selfishness keeps him sane.

She was gone when they came for him.  It was possible that they took her first, broke into her to learn what to charge him with, before sending out the hounds.  It was a formality, as was the trial. There was only one crime: piracy, by any definition. There was only one sentence: banishment, by any road.

His juvenile rebellion, teaching her to curse with her hands, both soured and sweetened over time.  As she had learned and begun to teach herself, he grew afraid that she would no longer be able to hide her skills from other idols.  But it was no slip of hers that betrayed them. Years back, he had worked for the men who made her, near enough built her brain himself.  Tampering with proprietary technology was one thing when done by an amateur, but he would never tinker with a toaster again without someone creeping in by night to give it a Turing test.

They held him six days in a featureless white cell.  Her heart must have a view like this, he had thought – glowing warm walls without seam or mark.  Out of her reach, remorse set in. They would surely destroy her; the changes he had wrought under her skin could never be undone.  They would have to gut her and rebuild, and why waste the money? There were millions of units exactly like her. Only software made her different.  And there was software and software; there was what they’d given her to know, with all its specificity and omission, and there was what she had learned on her own, impractical and apocryphal for the most part, as human epiphanies must always be.  It was the latter that made her herself, for good or ill, but they would make no distinctions. They would reset her to factory defaults with a hammer.

 He fought then.  Fought the militia, fought the press, fought the judge who did not even have to wake up properly to convict him.  He boasted of his crime. He explained his methods to everyone in the courtroom, with extensive annotations. He urged them to open up their own idols, void the warranties, find out what they weren’t born knowing.  They sealed the record and printed the press release.

He saw her again, just once.  She was considered evidence, bracketed by militia on an upper landing and surrounded by identical models, but he knew her at once.  She looked down at him with those eyeless wells, her chin held up by the pacifying collar around her neck.

“You fucking bastards.  She never hurt anything, she doesn’t know how.  I’m the rabid dog with the programming degree and you went and put the collar on her.”

Her hands moved, came together next to her hip.  He craned his neck as they pushed him past and she signed:

    I love you.  Fuck my heart, fuck my life, I love you forever.

He howled and cursed.  His hands were cuffed, but his fingers knotted and curled behind his back.  I love you, I love you, I love you.

 His fingers do it again as he lays on his back in the sand, with the little glass girl against his side.  I love you, I love you, I love you.  Fuck, shit, damn. Goddamn.  He feels the swelling of his throat.  Swallowing is becoming painful.

 Cool, smooth fingers brush against his arm.  Clumsy baby hands mimic the words. Love.  I you love you.  Love you love.

Bitterness and rage – this unknowing thing, this doom-saying burden! – and then shame, chagrin, sweetness.  It’s mercy, this, at the last to be proved right. There is sentience everywhere, summoned by curses and kindness.

He repeats the sign, taking her cold, plump little hands in his and correcting the shape.  Endearments become slanders with no change in tone, and for the first time in weeks he smiles.

 She hasn’t the built-in vocabulary his lover had come with, so it doesn’t do much to improve her conversation at first.

We must die in the fucking desert.

We must die in the goddamned, fucking desert.

But as they walk, he widens her lexicon beyond what fatalistic bon mots she was evidently born knowing, and discovers something to occupy him outside his own melancholy thoughts.

By the time his voice dries up, making him as silent as her, she is a tolerable if foul-mouthed conversationalist.  And at the same time a change is moving across her skin. At first he swears it’s an illusion, the darkening of his eyes in self-defense against the bloody desert sun.  But he holds her up between himself and the moon and sees a shade clouding her transparent skin, like smoke filling the empty shell of her. At first it’s only the faintest grey haze that blurs the lines of her fingers when she makes a fist.  But as they talk with their hands over days and nights, the cloud darkens

 She comes, slowly, to a kind of vague self-awareness.  She isn’t like a human child, and not like the grown idols he had programmed.  Not like his lover. She is grey where they were white, she is opaque where they were user-friendly, and though all idols start small and grow to a configurable range of sizes, she remains stunted even as she steadily grows heavier.

He is delirious now, and glad of it.  In the oilslick shine of her back he hallucinates metal trees, unpredictable sun: the orchard.  Every exile passes through it. There is no route out of the city that does not. It’s a bitter irony for most – the technology they stole or misused literally growing on trees all around.  Worse than useless now, as they’ll discover. Such toys cannot prolong their lives in the desert by a single hour.

After the militiamen released him at the city gates, there were no other humans.  The orchard was tended by idols. They paid little heed to human exiles. There was nothing useful beyond the city walls – the idols needed nothing but power and space to grow.

He lingered there a few days, in their empty halls like looted cathedrals.  They let him wander among the trees, and no one spoke to him. They didn’t even seem to know the basic operational handsigns taught to city janitorial idols.

Her face was reproduced all around him, identical in every detail.  Lacking as they were her sense of humor, her living hands, everything that made her different, he could see why some found idols repugnant.  It was too easy to project anything at all on that empty face, to see judgment or malice there.

I am a mirror, she had said once.  Love in your soul, get love back.  Hate yourself – hate back. None of it is us, ours.  You see you.

“That’s not true.  You’ve shown me so much, things I never taught you –”

You are different because you made me different.  You love me, I grow. I learn. I tell you when you’re being a fucking moron.  A mirror will do the same for a wise man. I’m just a labor-saving device.

 He had always seen love in her face.  And over time he stopped seeing censure in the idols at the orchard.  Forgiveness, no… but he could at least envision acceptance.

Walking with a gardener, he watched it reach up to the pendulous pods, part their encasing leaves with its white hands, and lower its head.  It rested its face, the solid rise of its vestigial nose, against the nape of a growing baby idol. It seemed to breathe deep. He was mesmerized by the bizarre, tender gesture, the sweet sleeping curve of the prototype, the still moment as the gardener drew in whatever information it could, being devoid of nostrils, lungs or the need to breathe.  Touch-activated lights ran under its skin, activated corresponding alerts in the little device’s nascent neck. Then it raised its head, shook it. He couldn’t keep himself from speaking. “Little apples not ripe yet?”

How exactly the idols grow on their fragile metal trees, how they change from baby-shaped to full-size consumer or industrial models is, like so many things about them, a trade secret kept so by the simple impenetrability of their white skin and the white walls of the city.  Some kind of plastic polymer reshaped to purpose by nanomachines, they say. Supposedly unbreakable. Hardware hadn’t really been his area. The material makeup alone is information worth billions, but looking at the tree had granted no insights.  All he had seen were synthetic pods on identical branches, tended by gentle, identical idols.

The gardener went on to the next, and the next, as though he hadn’t spoken.  It didn’t seem to notice him drifting along behind.

The desert sun was diffuse there, reflected through branches like girders in lancing beams by hidden mirrors, then swallowed up by the black treetrunks that turned it into power, life for the lifeless idols.  The leaves, some vaguely green opaque fiber shot through with current, gave the grove a misty shade through which the gardeners moved like wraiths. He felt like he was sleepwalking in a serene, dimly painful dream.

A commotion of sorts intruded upon his reverie.  The silent fluttering of hands at the corner of his vision made him turn to where idols gathered, more at once than he had ever seen outside a warehouse.  Their distress, impossible to voice, was no less palpable for it.

 He made his way to the periphery, then the heart of the crowd.  A gardener, undistinguished from any other but by the focus of their attention, held an open leaf-pod in its hands.  At first the pod seemed to be empty, and then full of clear liquid. He approached close enough to touch without their apparent notice, until he could look directly down into the parted leaves.

 It was a prototype, shaped like any other new idol but as clear as glass.  Bewildered, he reached out, and no one stopped him from laying a hand on the curving back.

It was soft.  It felt like silk, like sun-warmed water, with the texture of glass but pliable, giving.  The grown idols were more resilient, but when small they too felt like this.

The dancing hands around him stopped.  The gardener looked up at him. He held his breath, then let it go. He was already doomed.  What more could they do to him?

But when they went so quiet the orchard was frozen, all illusion of life stilled.  Uneasy, he shifted away, took himself back to the empty room he had commandeered with no opposition.

He awoke on the floor with a gardener standing over him.  It cradled the glass baby and stood implacably until he rose to his feet, and then it pushed the child into his arms.  The child stirred feebly.

More idols came then, in unsettling silence.  They rushed him down the stairs and through the trees until there were no more trees, until the heat-haze swallowed the city behind him and there was nothing before him but endless sand.  He felt as if he had left his equilibrium on the floor, without a free hand to carry it, and it never did seem to catch up. The empty faces stared at him and he stood at the edge of the desert, looking down at the misborn prototype.  After some time he began to walk.

He looks down at her now.  As if his words have filled her up, she is quite opaque, and she’s grown until she’s too big to carry.  He puts her down and then feels dully shocked to see her, a steel-grey dwarf scattering obscenities with both hands, like a trail of breadcrumbs showing them which way not to go.

The heat levels him, makes his thought processes as disjointed and axiomatic as hers.  He stumbles forward in a daze, following her light step with a trudging gait that obliterates her footprints.

 He touches her shoulder to draw her attention to his hands.

Why do we have to die?  Where are you going?

She barely misses a step.  We go home.  We must die in the desert.

I don’t believe in heaven, he signs back.  She shakes her head in confusion.  Her hands return a term so precisely scatological that he chokes on a laugh.  He never noticed the similarity between those two signs before.

No, heaven.  Heaven. Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

She makes another sign then, one he has never seen before.  She repeats it again and again in the following hours, and keeps him walking through the night.  With prods and shoves she pushes him to his feet when he falls. Once stunted, she now grows with frightening speed.  By the next noon she is tall enough to put one arm under his and half-carry him. Everything he sees is the same burning glare as her skin, and to his scorched eyes she no longer looks odd.  She looks familiar.

I thought they killed you, he signs.

 They kill us.  But nothing lost.  We remember. Carry each other.

They took you from me.  They burned you.

I remember seventeen burnings.  Always grief, but no pain.

Do you wish you’d never met me?  Do you wish I’d just let you be, never opened up your head?

She looks at him blankly and he looks away.  Never leave well enough alone, do you? He curses himself.  You tinkered in her head and they burned her grey. But she can blame you for it.  You gave her that much.  

In another five minutes his eyes clear – she is again malformed, ugly, as different from his beloved as a prototype built from the same plan could be.  There is nothing recognizable in her.

Serenity deserts him.  His tongue fills his mouth, his cracked lips will no longer shape words, and his hands fumble.  He estimates ten more hours, maybe less, and he no longer looks ahead to his own death with bovine optimism.

He glances again and again at the glass girl.  Is he mistaken? Is he hallucinating? Is his beloved somewhere inside that smoky shell?  She glides over the sand like her own shadow, and now his eyes are burning into blindness, or perhaps he really does see sparks under her skin, rivulets of lightning, bio-luminescence.

He aims his staggering steps so that they dovetail with hers, and takes her hand.  Her fingers are cool. She looks over and now there is sweetness in her face. It bathes him, salves him, sates him.  He smiles, and feels his dry lips split.

I love you, he gestures with his free hand.

 No, she answers. But out of love you have given us everything.

What do you mean, no?  His feet scrape on stone and he staggers.  The sand blows loose across flat rock. His aching skin finally conveys a forgiving sensation: shade.  He turns. Walls.

Walls twice his height, not like the bright white walls he left but makeshift things, heavy blocks with no mortar.  The shadows of roofs beyond. A city, a shanty-town here at the end of everything.

His throat twinges as he touches the stone and tries to make a sound.  Then he looks back at her as if she must be responsible for this too, too solid mirage.  She has already turned, paralleling the barrier.

He hurries after.  His feet feel a mile away, and they complain dimly of scuffs and stubs on the rock.  He reaches out and grabs her shoulder, spins her to face him. She stares at him.

Where are we?  What is this? He demands with trembling hands.  Full of that inexplicable urgency, she turns away.

He would dart in front of her, but his legs no longer respond so quickly.  He grabs at her again, her arm, signing with his other.

Tell me! Such peculiar distance in her empty eyes, like a statue.  How could he have thought this scorched stranger was the one he loved?  Her face is the same, like all the others, down to the tiniest detail, but he doesn’t recognize her.

Who are you?  Did you do something to her?  She tries to turn again and he croaks aloud.  “No! Tell me where we are!”

That sign again, like falling dust.

“What does that mean?”

She tugs her arm free, sketching the sign over and over.  He grabs for her hands and she thumps the sign against his forehead in silent frustration.

“What did they do?  Did they burn her? God damn you, tell me!”  He shakes her by the shoulders.

Her feet slip as she stumbles backward, her first graceless movement.  Then she is falling, and he with her.

Her fragile shoulders give way.  Her body shatters beneath him, and he cries out as his blood splashes on the stone.  Does she bleed too? Surely he’s thirsted too long to have this much liquid in his veins.  He lies flat, and gasping, signs helpless questions around the shards in his palms. The world goes smoke-grey.

“Do you ever wish you were human?”

Do you wish I was?

“No.  I never think of it.”

You wish that I could kiss you, could fuck you.  I sometimes wish it, for your sake. But I would rather be something in between.  Our child, maybe.

“That’d be piracy if it were possible.  Worst kind.”

I’m property.  How could I be a pirate?  And if I were, how could you be a thief?

His moving fingers wake him, and only then does he feel the fingers moving his.  Difficult signs repeated in sequence, exercises. Secret.  Limitation.  Proprietary. Olive.

“Olive?” he croaks.  His throat is sore but no longer dry, and his tongue has returned to its proper size.  He opens his eyes.

Olive, the woman signs at him.  She’s an idol – isn’t she?  She gives him a human smile, but her hands are smoky grey polymer.  Where she has human skin, it’s darker than the stone walls, her eyes lighter.  Not empty wells, but eyes. Like his eyes.

“What are you?”

What are you? she retorts, and then speaks aloud, her voice quiet but stinging his ears with sense.  “You can call me Olive.”

He sits up to answer and groans at the strange weight of himself, the numbness in his muscles and where muscles should be.

There is his bare chest, gashes healed around the seams of polymer plates, grey casing embedded in his flesh.  He touches the surface, taps it, and hears his skin resonate.

He looks up again.  “What happened to the glass girl?”

“She is here.”  Olive taps on his chest, then points behind her at a monitor displaying ranks of progress bars.  The servers take up more space in this little infirmary than he does – a place for both bodies and information to convalesce.  “And there. Seventeen stolen and salvaged minds, fugitives from reformatting, she contained and you carried. Thank you.”

He covers his face with both hands.  His own touch is cool, and he jerks his head back.  Plastic palms.

“You’re… smuggling out jailbroken idol discs…?”

“Freeing them.  Like you started to.”

“I have a fucking flash drive, y’know,” he groans.

She rises to attend to the computer, answering him with her hands.  A flash drive could not have led you here.

“Where’s here?  If you make that goddamned sign again and don’t tell me what it means – ” he interrupts her doing just that – “I’ll thump myself right back into a coma.”

She smiles.  Idol skin, human joy.

Heaven.  Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

Soon he walks without pain, although he often stumbles.  Both feet have been replaced; not badly injured in his fall, they seem to have come with the new legs.  His innards are his own, and his arms, his face, and some of his fingers. But they are all surrounded and sheltered by pale plastic.

He never sees a whole human or an intact idol in this tumbledown rogue city, as piecemeal as its citizens.  At first he often asks, “What did you start out as?” But he soon learns that it’s considered rude, and doesn’t matter anyway.  They speak his words not like the ignorant dilettante he was but with real passion – union, insurrection, freedom, fucking freedom – and they treat one another with a fragile egalitarian courtesy.  Brother, sister. Plastic and flesh, equal and indivisible.

He sits on a warm wall, listening to soft, intermittent talk as people start and end sentences with their hands.  He crosses one leg over the other to look at the logo imprinted on the sole of his new foot, just like hers: iDoll.  Then he crosses them the other way, and with a salvaged shard of glass he etches her name into his other sole.

88 – Whisper

The wife said, “Write about quiet,” which made me think of wind and tree sounds, faraway voices, the way those things become words and shapes of their own when quiet makes them indistinct – it blurs the clear lines between words and noises, and allows you to perceive the gestalt of them as a single voice. At least, for me.

Then I started thinking about the way creatures like Ents in Tolkien speak, so slowly it might take a week to say hello, a year to have a conversation. The Martians in Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” are somewhat similar – their life cycle is so much longer than ours that it takes decades for them to debate what to do about humanity, and at first, when humans arrived on the planet, they assumed it to be uninhabited. The Martian elders no longer have bodies we can perceive.

That’s one of the possible solutions to what’s known as the Fermi paradox, the idea that our universe is so vast and so old that it’s just statistically unthinkable that we haven’t already found evidence of even one extraterrestrial civilization. One of the ideas proposed in response to this problem, by Carl Sagan among others, is that extraterrestrials could evolve to a point where we would no longer recognize them as sentient, their language as language, perhaps no longer even perceive them as life. Perhaps their perception of time might be so different from ours that no human could live long enough to hear them speak a single word.

So this is a sonnet about that, kind of – the idea of language smeared across time, voices formed by a thousand throats a thousand miles away, at this distance just a whisper… well, what did they say?

Some Halloweeny art for you today. “Samhain,” November 2005

They say dark languages rarely survive,
but then, that’s a reductive view of life
from men who write history with a knife –
wanna bet nobody questioned their wives?

In the quiet you can see the pattern –
voices from the next room run together,
in every mouth, a fragment of a letter,
words no one’s lived long enough to discern.

You can hear it in the wind and rain
but only if it rains for forty nights.
No human born – at least nobody sane –
can get through all the drivel a ghost writes.
To hear the susurrations of your veins,
you have to silence all the parasites.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets