The Night Fishers
by Julie C. Day
All Rights Reserved
After three seasons in the city, Izabeth is finally visiting Driesch’s Night Market. In preparation, she’s done what she can to blend. Displaying weaknesses is never a winning strategy. Though the burns on Izabeth’s neck and chest throb, she’s left them uncovered. Her shirt sleeves are rolled up, revealing the glass beads she’s cut into the flesh of both wrists. As she strides along Rua Lavinia, Izabeth’s bruised body feels stiff, but at least she looks sure of her destination.
In truth, the Night Market is not a brilliant option, but it’s the only one left. Just like Cousin Leo and all those other Abfall Districters—Izabeth is finally ready to sell what she has on offer—her organic neural network.
Some aspects of Driesch’s city life are so essential they don’t require a permanent address. Foremost among them, the Night Market is a seasonally migrating carnival formed from tents, canvas stalls, and semi-permanent wooden shacks, all connected by a spiderweb of Glassed-lines. Driesch’s Night Market might not be legal, but it’s the epicenter of this over-Glassed city. At the Market, you can barter your neural template—or someone else’s—for the credits and Glassed-supports you and yours so desperately need. No matter your history or employment—with nothing beyond the appropriate form of payment—the Night Market offers whatever neural augmentation you fancy—permanently or just for that particular night.
The Night Market is entertainer, traveling saloon, weapons dealer, mental pawnshop, and sexual playground. It’s the bloodied heart, the beaten pulse, the broken compass at the center of Driesch’s Glassed-Ghost Age.
Tonight, if things go as planned, Izabeth will end up with enough credits and Limm-Glass to—finally—thankfully—leave behind Rixdorf’s cut-rate factory work and its nonexistent safety protocols. No more burnt flesh. No more fear of being broken and torn, lacerated or punctured.
“Remember. Tonight, it’s at the Limm Institute,” Cousin Leo had told her, as if getting to the Market is the difficult part of this evening’s equation. Leo’s intentions are always good. Unfortunately, his execution generally lacks anything approaching finesse. The idea Izabeth holds tight: the low-end factory-produced Glass covering Leo’s body must be capable of offering better advice than Leo’s bio-personality.
“Goddamn Leo and his Glassed-up goddamn schemes,” Izabeth mutters, as though cursing Leo will protect her from all the ways this night could go wrong.
Rua Lavinia is the main throughfare between the Adfall District and the Limm Institute. Alongside Izabeth, other Driesch residents wander the street, all their embedded Limm-Glass prominently on display. Shoulders hunched, Izabeth works hard—fails—to pretend her discomfort is due to a sudden chill. Every nearby person is a potential threat. No matter how much she ignores the truth, Izabeth is prime material for a Night Fisher. Her single, un-Glassed bio-consciousness means she’s an easy capture and an even easier copy.
The cheap pseudo-Glass around her wrists and her physical scars—an unintended bonus from her job at the Rixdorf factory—provide only the most cursory of disguises. Thankfully, all these months in Driesch have made one fact as clear as low-iron glass: Driesch’s virtual worlds and conversations supplant the physical world. It’s unlikely her fellow pedestrians notice Izabeth in any active, conscious way. Even Cousin Leo, who shows up despite eating and sleeping in their shared apartment, barely interacts with Auntie and Izabeth. And he never helps them navigate this city, despite all his new Glass-based knowledge. Glass-addiction Auntie calls it. His need to lose himself in those endorphin-inducing emotional reverbs.
Except for tonight.
Though Izabeth feels a fool even thinking that word: hope.
Tonight—if things go as Leo promised—“trust me” is the phrase he actually used—tonight Izabeth will connect with her first piece of real Limm-Glass. After months in this strange city, Izabeth will finally have her own Glassed-voice guiding and protecting her all hours of the day and night. Not everyone becomes lost in reverbs that ignite the body’s happy neurochemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. That’s on Leo. Of course, it is. She’s always been stronger than Leo.
Thinking of neural pathways leads to another uncomfortable thought: Auntie is going to be so upset. She cries whenever Leo, her only child, returns with yet another piece of embedded Glass. Mama and Papa would have responded in the same way. Except they can’t. Not even a fragment of them remains—like little Massako, her youngest cousin, they’re nothing but ash and star dust.
Izabeth drowns memory until its ice cold. There’s no use dwelling on that time before Driesch, a time when the word ‘they’ used to include so many: uncles, parents, and a great auntie or two. Cousins.
All gone. Except for Cousin Leo.
After the Satomi family’s flight from Mlawa, ‘they’ had distilled into three specific people—Izabeth, Auntie, and Auntie’s son, Leo. The three of them skirted towns, farms, and fellow convoys of travelers. The three of them stood beneath the water tower, sweltering in the mid-day sun. That entire journey Leo and Auntie looked so damn sad. Izabeth had wanted to hold Leo’s hand. But she hadn’t. She didn’t. Everything made her feel weary, like her heart was playing dead. In the end, it was just the Satomis traveling under the city wall on one of the Rixdorf Corporation’s trains and into what Izabeth is beginning to suspect is one enormous con.
Yet more thoughts that can go ahead and asphyxiate themselves. Standing on Rua Livinia, Izabeth can’t shake that feeling of tightness in her own throat.
Izabeth isn’t used to Leo getting things right, but that’s irrelevant. Leo is the one who figured out what he calls Driesch’s “easy money,” wandering the city, collecting new experiences, and then selling off yet another templated copy of himself. Out of the three of them, Leo is the one who managed to avoid the indentured servitude that is Rixdoff factory work and its supposed Immigrant Assistance Program.
Despite Leo’s supposed success, most days he no longer feels like that gentle boy, the one who constantly made a mess of things but also tried so hard to make it right. Until this morning’s “trust me” and that glimmer of self-doubt. The Satomi family’s life in Driesch—her life—was never supposed to turn out this way.
Izabeth takes a calming breath, focuses on words like “relax” and “easy” as she scans the cobbled street of Rua Lavinia. She’s careful not to let her gaze linger on any one person. Nighttime, well almost any time, is dangerous when you’re un-augmented and alone. Most of her fellow pedestrians are, like Izabeth, Abfall Rats heading southeast toward the Night Market. Streetlights and evening stars illuminate the telltale markers: thick-soled boots crusted with city effluent, that physical whiff of poor bathing options and desperation—at least she isn’t the only one.
The key difference between Izabeth and the rest of the people out at night: Limm-Glass. Izabeth lacks the true Glass-beaded wrists of all Driesch locals or the Glass-scarred necks of long-time Abfall residents—marks that rise above their shirt collars and encircle their eyes. In Driesch, scars mean one of two things: Limm-Glass removed, or Limm-Glass prepared but not yet applied. In other words, a sure sign of Glass-poverty.
Under one of the city’s electric streetlamps not three meters away, two people watch Izabeth and the rest of the pedestrians headed in the direction of the Limm Institute. The taller of the two stares at Izabeth, not even pretending. Night Fisher? Thrill seeker? Something else? Stop. Breathe. No thoughts. Push them down.
Tonight is going to work out just fine.
The woman looks not much older than Izabeth herself, though, clearly, she carries a multitude. Lengths of Limm-Glass—cubes, triangles and cones—rise out of her scalp and fall to her shoulders: implanted, geometrically-Glassed-hair. Expensive. High end. This is no Abfall Rat. When the woman raises her lips in a supposed smile, Izabeth can see the chips of Glass imbedded along her gumline. Even with Izabeth’s faux-Glass and scars, the two of them look nothing alike.
Izabeth’s own thick hair is tucked inside her black knit cap. Her unadorned eyes—Glass-free pupils and equally organic dark brown irises—are surrounded by a faded charcoal stripe Izabeth painted from temple to temple, across the bridge of her nose. And it’s not just Izabeth’s face. The laces of Izabeth’s boots are hidden by the skirt of a dark cotton dress that hangs loosely on her frame. Mud splatters speckle the two layers of frill that rise toward Izabeth’s knees.
“Hello, pretty bird. Looking for something?”
“No.” This can’t be good. Izabeth’s face isn’t ugly or even plain, but pretty is the antithesis of the look she’s trying to project. Tonight is all about stern Izabeth, competent Izabeth. Izabeth, the person who can handle herself.
“No,” Izabeth repeats, then scowls and shakes her head, not moving but hoping—damn it. there’s that word again—for the best. Despite her fierce expression, the acidic taste of bile has risen up from Izabeth’s throat, sweat breaking out along her neck and lower back. Who knows what will happen if she ignores these two. Risky. Too risky. Better to deal with the situation in a relatively open location.
“You don’t even know me.” The tall woman projects confidence, still smiling that Glass-encrusted smile.
“All right. My name’s Davila.”
Davila’s smile widens, all glittering teeth and Glass, as her companion turns to Izabeth. This second person’s Limm-Glass is far more conservative—short, un-Glassed hair, eyes untouched. Izabeth knows better. His body is covered in the best quality Driesch drab: linen jacket, Glass-topped cane, a silk-edged hat. More telling, his mustache and goatee, both carefully tended affairs, are encrusted in clear, shimmering Glass.
Izabeth has an almost uncontrollable urge to scratch at the fresh burns on her neck. Draw blood. The way both of them look at her…Izabeth can almost feel their modifications cataloging the details of her appearance and drawing all sorts of accurate, Glass-based conclusions. Why couldn’t Leo meet her at home? Why hadn’t she even considered asking him to walk with her to the Market?
“My name’s—” the second Glassed watcher starts, attempting a rather thin-lipped, unconvincing smile.
A group of slumming super-fines, arms interlocked, steps between Izabeth and the two watchers. The new crowd isn’t stopping to help Izabeth. Why would they? Instead, they seem to be taking advantage of the relatively broad street to pause and do whatever it is people like them do before reaching the Night Market.
“My name—” the mustached man repeats, before his voice is drowned out.
“Darling, you don’t want to open that bag yet,” one of the super-fines shrieks at their companion. “We’re not even near the grounds.”
“Oh, give it rest,” a second super-fine replies. “This night is already dull enough.”
“Birdie, why don’t you let us escort you?” The mustached watcher attempts to weave his way through the super-fines, then pauses clearly concerned he doesn’t touch their Glass.
“Forget it, Maurice,” Davila mutters.
In one of those unsettling Glassed moves, both watchers turn away at the same time, landing in exactly the same pose, their attention returning to the other pedestrians. The streetlamp highlights their identical expressions, their non-analog behavior.
Izabeth fights, fails to a suppress a shudder, then continues forward, carefully not running away. Never run away. Always have a plan and a place to go. Basic Driesch city rules. Along with staying inside once night falls, but tonight Izabeth is following Cousin Leo’s plan, or the plan provided by Cousin Leo and whomever else now wanders through his Glassed-up brain.
The Night Market isn’t entirely safe for the un-Glassed, one of the reasons she’s avoided it until now. But this morning, the burns on Izabeth’s body hurt so damn bad. The way she looked, Leo hadn’t even bothered to say good morning when they crossed paths outside their Trumain Street boardinghouse.
“What the hell happened to your…” Leo waved his hand, the gesture encompassing the bruises and burns along her exposed skin. “Well, everything?”
Izabeth had tried not to flinch. “Work.” After a too-long silence, she elaborated. “Overheated metal on an extruder and a rotten wooden gate.”
“You really have to get away from that shite hole. There’s a reason Rixdorf is always taking on people like us, cousin. They know they can always find more.” Leo’s expression is angry, not like her Leo at all. Though her bio-pure Leo also would have cared.
“I’m trying.” Izabeth gaze is focused on Leo’s latest piece of Glass. It rests in the center of his left eyelid. Green with a dark center, the Limm-Glass holds her attention every time Leo blinks. Glass iris. Blink. Organic iris. Blink. Back and forth. Blink. Blink. Blink.
“Look, I can help. You should meet me at the Night Market. For real this time.”
“Uh-huh.” Which of Leo’s multitude is talking, thinking, dominating this particular conversation? Izabeth wishes so hard she didn’t have to care. Pushes that though right down. Buries it.
“Listen to me Izabeth Samoti. You gotta stop being such a meater or you’re going end up batty-fanged. And Mama and I won’t even be able scrape your body off that factory floor.”
The edge to his voice, the rage. Back in Mlawa, Leo used to hold her hand, the two of them following their parents to the river’s edge and Saturday services. That life by the river is long gone.
Now talking to Leo outside their boardinghouse, Izabeth can feel her still damp hair, cold against her aching neck. Today she’s running late; her burns needed tending if she wanted any chance at avoiding the cost of a medic. Auntie must be almost halfway to the factory by now.
Running late, running to work, running away from the scent of smoke and the screams that fill the village’s main square. It seems Izabeth is always running.
“Let me help you, little cousin. The Night Market. Meet me there tonight. Izabeth, trust me. We’ll always be family.”
And then Leo closes his eyes, his Glass-iris continuing to maintain eye contact. Leo definitely did care, but it wasn’t just Cousin Leo who was offering his help. Leo came with Limm-Glass knowledge, information, and ideas her un-Glassed self couldn’t even begin to understand.
“All right, Leo,” she’d said.
“Good.” He’d even smiled.
With the burn marks across her upper body and the bruises mottling her stomach and thighs, a visit to the Market seemed to make so much sense. Unlike Izabeth, at least Leo and his Glassed-eyelids had some sort of plan.
Which is how Izabeth finds herself sixteen hours later, heading toward the Night Market while Auntie sleeps unknowing //and alone in their rented room.
Shite. And Shite again. That voice. It feels off. Not like her usual bio-thoughts.
The boardinghouse’s and the Rixdorf factory’s protections supposedly keep out the feral Glass. But Izabeth has never believed the hype. Not really. It’s her lack of ‘special’ or ‘interesting’ that keeps her safe. Her ability to blend. Tonight, Izabeth isn’t doing such a good job of blending. Those Glassed watchers—None of this will matter once Leo negotiates her own Glass.
Just breathe. Focus. Box away those feelings and push them down, deep down.
A wind gust rises up as Izabeth reaches the intersection of Rua Lavinia and Pasteur Avenue. The scent of sewage, an Abfall staple composed of sulfur, ammonia, and rot, now mixes with a cloud of grit that seems to bite into her exposed face: Glass-infused grit. Potentially carrying even more feral routines—single-note thoughts, reverbing, inescapable emotions. Maybe Leo can splurge for a pair of goggles once she reaches the Market.
Once past the intersection, the wind continues to follow Izabeth, winding its way through the warren of streets that surround the Limm Institute’s grounds. The streetlamps illuminate the usual array of overhead Glassed-lines, while the swirling dust glints and sparkles, likely nothing but fragments of Limm-Glass that have slipped away from the Night Market. Not targeted at all. //of course. Meanwhile, the number of pedestrians heading southeast has built into a steady stream. Their destination is directly ahead.
Night Market time.
Driesch’s public gardens are carefully stylized: cultivated plant life melded with artisan-crafted Glass, more Glass intertwined with the tree limbs overhead. But here at the edge of the Institute’s grounds, Limm-family money has preserved a small stretch of un-Glassed wilderness, a wooded barrier that encircles the Institute itself. The Limms, the founders and first profiteers of the Glassed-Ghost Age, own more of everything—more land, more capital, and, of course, more of a lock on the manufacture of the highest quality Glass.
Some seasons they also host the Night Market.
Izabeth follows the crowd through the woodland to the edge of the Institute grounds. Glancing back, it’s impossible to tell if the two Glassed watchers are nearby or continued to scout the Rua Lavinia. Doesn’t matter. She’ll be Glassed soon. Safe. The crowd presses together. The path is only wide enough for three or four people to walk abreast.
Emerging from the tree line, the dirt path transforms into a brick and Glass-encrusted lane. The un-Glassed trees that hide the rest of the city are just the beginning of the Institute’s strangeness. Instead of Glass-powered electric lights, oil lamps are strung along the Night Market’s serpentine pathways, illuminating the stalls and tents, the bodies—both living and Glassed-Ghosted automatons. Limm-Glassed cables don’t just criss cross above visitor’s heads, they twine and loop in complicated knotted patterns—people and bipedal tin men cocooned inside the Night Market’s private Glassed network. The lines sway in the breeze along with the bodies they contain. The shallow movements of their chests are the only indication the human figures are still alive.
//lost //forgotten //alone.
Izabeth finds the swirling cloud of Limm-Glass just as jagged on this side of the trees. Don’t listen. That’s all she needs to do. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. If Leo can get her even the cheapest of Limm-Glass, the cloud’s temporary intrusion will be worth it.
There’s that word again: hope.
In less than a minute, Izabeth reaches the Market’s western entrance, a wrought iron arch as wide as two trolley cars and almost two stories high. A greeter stands next the entrance along with some sort of large Glassed-dog; both the dog and the greeter seem overly tall. It isn’t just their height that’s unsettling. The greeter’s face and upper chest gleam, as though coated in the same oil used by the lamps, though Izabeth knows that’s incorrect. The greeter’s expression is rigid, almost frozen. Not oil-coated. Of course not. The greeter is covered in a thin glaze of borosilicate Glass.
“Oh—” Izabeth quickly cuts off her exclamation of surprise. Long skirts and aprons, trousers and long capes are what you find during the day, at least on Driesch’s streets and the Rixdorf factory along with Abfall’s stalls and boardinghouses.
//so confused //alone //poor darling.
That feral intrusion. What if this doesn’t—Quiet, Izabeth. Stop thinking.
“Finally, here,” a stranger to Izabeth’s left calls out.
Izabeth flinches. Can’t help turning in a circle, making sure no one’s too close.
“Time for some mafficking fun!” another stranger cries.
Right now would be the perfect time for Leo to show up.
Izabeth’s attention returns to the nearby greeter and dog. In addition to the greeter’s body glaze, an embedded crown—consisting of dandelion yellow and blue Limm-Glass—brilliant cuts at least five centimeters in height—surrounds their hairless skull. Further down their body, more Glass lays in stylized triangles across both their breasts and the apex between their thighs. How can their legs be so damn long?
“Welcome,” the greeter booms, their Glass-fixed smile aimed directly at Izabeth. And why not, in this crowd of Glassed visitors—whether cheap Abfall wares or Limm-certified super-fine—Izabeth is the one who stands out.
Izabeth nods at the greeter but remains silent. What am I supposed to say?
Behind Izabeth, someone cackles, whether in response to Izabeth and the greeter’s interaction or some other internal conversation is unclear.
Still no sign of Leo. Izabeth’s chest aches, tight with a mixture of scars and overlapping burns.
“Step on through,” the greeter says, still looking directly at Izabeth.
“I’m just going to wait right here.” Izabeth feels the heat of a blush on her cheeks as she moves to the far side of the archway, away from the greeter and their imposing Glassed-up dog.
The crowd continues streaming through the entrance.
Amongst all the passing strangers, Izabeth recognizes two people, the Glassed watchers, Davila and Maurice. Dear, Lords. Of course, they were right behind her the entire time. As they come abreast with her location, the watchers both turn and smile in her direction before crossing, silently, into the Market, no doubt focused on the virtual handshake that will allow them to interface with the Market’s network.
Something Izabeth doesn’t have to worry about, at least not yet. //clearly.
Izabeth is having a hard time getting enough air down into her lungs. Can’t leave. Stick with the plan. Home is not an option.
Leo was right: insult or not, Izabeth is a meater. One hundred percent Glass-free, her only direct interface with the Market is the archway itself. Her only true protection is not remaining this way for long.
This entire journey Izabeth had thought—maybe, hopefully, if she is in any way lucky—that the scars on her neck and upper arm might be mistaken for Glass-prepped skin. But even in the dim light of the Rua Lavinia, Davila and Maurice hadn’t been fooled. It’s clear the Night Market greeter is no different.
Please, Leo. Don’t let me down.
Izabeth really doesn’t want to enter the Market alone.
//so alone //welcome.
“Welcome to the Night Market,” the Glass-crowned greeter reiterates, stepping through the passing crowd and moving to Izabeth’s side. They seem to take no notice of the now rage-filled animal they’ve left behind or the canine fangs currently exposed, each tooth coated in a green-hued rainbow of Glass.
The dog growls as it tracks Izabeth with its dragonfly-eyes. Whether it’s upset its handler has left its side or just focused on Izabeth’s un-Glassed state is unclear.
Izabeth nods her head but remains silent. It really, really feels like it’s time to head home. Then again, Leo—easily befuddled Cousin Leo—managed to get through this process. She’s the one covered in bruises and scars.
//stay //the next time will be easier.
A whole sentence. So not good. Breathe. Air in. Air out. The next time will be easier.
“Come now. Don’t get all poked up on me,” the greeter continues, as though Izabeth is embarrassed by her Glass-less state, not reasonably leery of the growling dog—and the greeter’s intentions.
“I’m just waiting for someone. I’m not sure they’re going to show up.” The cloud of Glass and dirt seems to speed up, pitting itself against every centimeter of her exposed skin. Burn marks on the side of her neck have started to crack open. Izabeth feels clear liquid trickling out.
“I’m sure they’ll show up very soon.” Despite the frozen smile, the greeter sounds concerned. “You really need to go inside.” They bend down on their too-tall legs, and gaze directly into Izabeth’s eyes, their rapidly blinking eyelashes seem to be telegraphing a message. Perhaps, run away. Perhaps, //trying to help.
//everything is just fine.
“Yeah. Of course. I can wait on the other side.”
“Yes. Welcome.” The greeter’s hands, when they guide Izabeth through the archway and into the Market itself, are completely encased in Glass.
And suddenly everything feels much better. Even the dog stops growling, though that’s likely just a matter of timing. Of course, it is… The dog’s owner has finally returned to its side.
Still, un-Glassed means exposed. Izabeth isn’t moving farther inside the Market until Leo turns up. There’s plenty to take in while she waits.
With the exception of the night sky, the oil lamps suspended from the Glassed-lines provide the only source of external light. Though the Limm-Glass on display across every corner of the Market reflects that light back a thousand times. Somehow, in the sea of the Limm-Glassed bodies, tents, and stalls, Leo is nowhere to be found. Probably hidden in plain sight.
Why had she thought it would be any different?
//don’t leave //so alone.
Izabeth is almost getting used to the //feral voices.
Some of the Market stalls display prominent signs, indicating their Limm-Glass is certified by a city medic. Others are silent on the subject. And then there’s the swirling cloud of feral Glass—//reverbs //simple routines that seems intent on imbedding themselves in //everyone. Despite the engineered Limm-Glass on display, nothing about the Night Market is entirely controlled.
But all of it has a purpose.
Which is why when Izabeth finally finds Leo in the crowd, he’s with those two Glassed watchers from the Rua Lavinia. Leo looks completely relaxed. It’s like he doesn’t notice the difference between himself and his companions. No matter how much illicit Glass Leo melds with his flesh, he will never look like Davila or Maurice. It’s the cheap Glass, the scars, that mark him most clearly—an Abfall Rat now and right until the moment his body dies.
Maurice, and Davila stop in front of Izabeth, while Leo steps forward and enfolds her in a hug.
“Leo. I’ve been looking—”
“Stop fretting, Izabeth. You’ve really got to trust me,” he whispers as though the words are for her alone. And maybe they are.
Leo steps away, his arms dropping to his sides. “Davila, Maurice, meet Izabeth. Izabeth, these are my friends, Davila and Maurice.”
The momentary blankness in their expressions before they smile is almost imperceptible and something a Glassed-up, reverb-tripping Leo entirely fails to notice. Despite his trust, these people are clearly not Leo’s anything, including friends.
Whatever they are, they’ve helped to keep Leo alive. Now it’s Izabeth’s turn.
“Leo, I don’t like it here.” As it turns out the warning dog?—welcoming dog?— at the Market’s entrance is just one of many Glassed animals. Another canine, this one closer to a wolf, guards a large structure near the center of the market. Not quite a tent, the temporary building is rounded, formed from canvas, wood, and a vast amount of Limm-Glass.
“It has a face.”
“Yeah, the dog, but also the damn tent—or whatever this is.” Frustrated, Izabeth nods her head. The building looks like the upper half of a giant, scowling, eye-blinking Glassed face. “It looks like it’s going to launch itself up out of the ground. I don’t want to go inside.”
“We’ll meet you,” Davila says before she follows Maurice through the doorway. “We’ve got some equipment to setup, anyway.” As though templating Izabeth is a forgone conclusion.
And then it’s just Leo and Izabeth—along with the Glassed wolf—standing outside. The enormous scowling face that makes up most of the building doesn’t seem to care either way. Its expression doesn’t change.
“That wolf—” Izabeth starts.
“Uncle Benni used to tell us that if you stared into a hellhound’s eyes three times you were sure to die. Never thought you actually believed him.” Cousin Leo smiles as though he’s told a joke. Then again he’s liking flying on reverbs, both purchased and feral.
“Not funny, Leo.”
“Look, Iz, I’m trying to help you.”
“Yeah. I know.” And Izabeth does know. It’s just that the longer she spends in this place, the less sure she is of this plan. Leo’s judgment has never been sound. What if all his Glassed-consciousnesses don’t care? What if they’re more than happy to see her harmed? What if—
“Izabeth this is going to work. Why do you think I’m out wandering the city every day?” Leo asks.
“Because you’re a shiftless wanker?”
“She’s just nervous, Leo. She’s right about one thing. You are a shiftless wanker.” Davila laugh is not entirely reassuring. “That right, Izabeth? Nervous?” Davila has a hand on Leo’s shoulder. Another on Izabeths’s waist. Her touch pinches, almost like a Glass cut. How has she not noticed Davila exiting the building and returning to her side?
Blood or sweat trickles down Izabeth’s black-clad hip. //so much Glass.
//everything is fine.
“Yeah. Sorry, Leo. I know you’re trying to help.”
“Ready, now?” Davila vocalizes, though Izabeth is pretty sure she could communicate using the Night Market’s private net, no meat-words required. Driesch-privilege drips from her Glassed geometry. She contains an untold number of caregivers, augmented skills, and companion voices.
Izabeth could do with some of those helpers.
“Yeah.” Leo nods his head in acknowledgement, just as though Izabeth has spoken aloud.
With all these ideas //voices wandering through Izabeth’s thoughts, it might be true. Maybe she is speaking words. That tickle in her nose and throat doesn’t feel so great.
//relax //nothing but paranoia.
“Don’t look so worried, Iz. Iz. Iz’beth.”
Izabeth thinks she should probably disagree; a reverb stutter is never a good sign. Ah, well.
“Iz, nothing bad is going to happen. It’s the Night Market, duckling girl.” Leo smiles down at Izabeth as the three of them—Izabeth, Leo, and Davila—step past the Glassed wolf and enter the tent. For a moment Leo’s Glassed eyelids are completely concealed behind his widened eyes, and then they blink back into focus again. Organic iris. Glass Iris. Blink. Blink. Blink.
“So tell me again, what do they do with all these templates?” It’s much quieter inside the building’s scowling head. The light is almost //gentle soothing.
“Who cares, little cousin? It’s not like anything happened to me. I’m totally fine.”
“Debatable if you ever were,” Izabeth replies, caught by the sweet Leo grin suddenly flashing across his face.
“Ha. True enough.”
“We’re ready for you,” Davila interjects, pointing to a chair and a nearby portable console setup in the corner of the tent.
“Okay. Let’s do it.” It feels like this moment has been waiting for her since she first stepped off the train and onto the streets of Driesch. Unprotected children and un-Glassed immigrants never stay that way for long. In some ways Driesch is no different from any other place. We adapt or die.
I want to live.
Izabeth settles into the wooden chair, keeping her eyes averted from the console and an array of Glassed tools on the table to her left. If she doesn’t look, it’s not happening. She can just emerge on the other side, Glass-protected, no longer bio-weak, bio-pure.
“This won’t take long,” Davila murmurs as she attaches a Glassed line to Izabeth’s skull.
Izabeth hears a cry from somewhere nearby. It rises in volume, and then suddenly stops. What’s left behind is the low hum of the Night Market crowds, the smell of sweat, cooking grease, and dung-tainted mud, Izabeth’s own inhalations and exhalations. Still fine. Still alive. Still me.
Izabeth feels a trickle running down her temple. The drop she catches on her figure is red. Blood. Though—strangely—the wound doesn’t actually hurt. Neither do her latest burns and bruises.
“Don’t look so worried, cousin. I know it’s a bit uncomfortable. Just remember after they’re done, nothing will have changed. You’ll still be exactly the same.”
“That’s not entirely correct, Leo.” Davila’s Glassed-smile, now just centimeters away, is even more unsettling than first time Izabeth saw it on the Rua Lavinia. “She won’t be a meater anymore.”
“And we’ll have met our quota for the night,” Maurice adds from somewhere nearby. “Batista will be happy. Happy-ish anyway.” Or at least Izabeth thinks that’s what Maurice says. It’s getting harder to focus on anything but the strange sounds inside her head.
“Need to keep Batista happy…” This time Izabeth is certain it’s Davila’s voice.
Newborn creatures shouldn’t be able to cognate and speak. They shouldn’t already recognize something as missing, whether a body, a memory, or a sense of peace. Worry is a poor start to any existence, but that’s exactly how Girl’s Glassed-life began: worried, aware, and confused.
//Girl: where am I?
//Girl: is anyone there?
“Internal vocalizations look good.” A voice cuts over Girl’s own words, emphasizing a truth Girl can no longer avoid. The voice spoke. It made noise. Something Girl’s own body fails to do. Though she can feel— It’s like one of those fires that block the train tunnels from time to time, spreading their haze out into the city itself. That sense of chemical smoke—thick and slithering—coating her throat and lungs. But the sense of //my throat //my lungs…is missing //what’s going on?
This time Girl is pretty sure the voice is //speaking directly to me her.
“Yes, that’s right. You’re figuring things out. Now, quiet,” the man snaps, clearly irritated, and then something in the attention of the voice changes as Girl notices it, too: the pattern of two sets of feet coming closer.
“Hello, Mx. Batista. Davila.”
“Hello, Maurice,” Mx. Batista clears his throat. “I hope the latest batch has been run through the Profile Alignment Search Tool? We don’t want any delays on the Neves order.”
“Of course, sir. I finished the processing this morning.”
“Good. Good. That’s what I like to hear. I’ll leave you to it.”
“Night, Mx. Batista,” the man called Maurice says.
“Night, Mx. Batista,” another voice echoes.
It must be the Davila person. So many strangers…
There’s a momentary silence, as though Maurice and Davila are waiting for Mx. Batista to walk away. Girl notices the whir of a fan, footfalls on a metal staircase heading downward and away, the clatter of heavy equipment somewhere beyond.
“That’s some high-grade bootlicking,” Davila says.
“Wanker. Didn’t see you doing any better” is Maurice’s muttered response.
“Fine. Fine. You ready? Time for the meeting at South Shields.”
“In a minute. Got this last calibration to finish. It’s the one we picked up two nights ago.”
“Leo’s cousin. I remember.”
Girl hears Davila’s low laugh just fine—the sound unsettling in a way she can’t quite figure out. //unsafe.
“Where the hell did that second voice come from? Want me to take a look.”
“Feel free. It’s a basic guidance routine, not my vocal interface.”
There’s a shuffling sound, as though the two people are trading places. And then that feeling, that pressure, like static electricity. Girl is sure her face must be twitching, though her //consciousness still seems to lack any input from eyes, or lips, or tongue. //focus.
“Focus,” Davila repeats.
Girl doesn’t like Davila. Doesn’t like not breathing //not breathing //not.
“Anxiety spiking.” It’s Davila speaking. “Note: Calibration is incomplete. Library binding still in process.”
“Jeezus, Davila, back off the console. You’re making it worse.”
The person called Davila snorts. “No kidding. She’s not all that different from the original. This one could take hours to calm down.”
“Clearly,” Maurice sighs, though there is something about his tone, as though he’s also amused—which can’t be right. Surely, her fear //anxiety //terror—Isn’t it entertainment? //no.
“Damn it, Davila. Stop playing with the pathways. That emotive-echo is going to cost me my Friday night.”
Girl feels suddenly lighter. No more chemical smoke. No more electric charges searing her mind. It seems Davila has finally stopped playing.
“Maurice, I’m serious about you joining us at the club tonight. It’s not like this one is going anywhere, and you know Batista isn’t going to return until late Monday at the earliest.
“Takes him at least that long to re-form neural coherence after a bender. The Glass-addled duffer can’t resist playing with the merchandise,” Maurice replies.
Both Davila and Maurice laugh—Girl still finds their laughter a not very nice sound. Girl has a feeling? a memory? of laughter meaning happy—of meaning love. //lower anxiety levels to blue.
“One of these days Batista’s uncle is going to catch on.”
“I hope not. Someone else might actually pay attention. And then where would we be?”
“Bored as all fuck. You know what?” Davila continues, clearly ready to change the subject. “Show me the code for your latest hook, and I’ll spot you a pint in a Dolly-Glass.”
“Yeah. What the hell. I could do with a drink. We’re back again tomorrow anyway.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Girl recognizes the sound of metal slamming against metal. A locker door, perhaps? //insufficient information. lower interest level to blue. What a strange comment—another one. There is something off about that thought even if the voice seems like her own…Girl can hear footsteps, Davi’s and Maurice’s, muffled, fading away. And then comes the silence, long unknown amounts of time spent with //nothing //isolation. Alone.
//what an utter dennis. both of them. total arseholes.
Sometimes it’s best to stay silent. Girl knows this well. But the voice doesn’t shock or slither. Doesn’t create a single uncomfortable sensation. //lower interest level to blue. //lower. Girl tries and tries until she can’t, won’t, refuses to remain silent any longer.
//they’re both gone. we promise.
// me and my friend.
//Girl: you have names.
//Beecher: you do too, alt-l.
//alt-L: a convenient label is not a name.
//Beecher: sometimes you sound just like her.
//alt-L: well, I sort of am.
Somehow, Girl can hear their laughter. Girl likes these voices so much more than the ones that sound like her //me running through her mind //consciousness. Alt-L is nameless—just like Girl herself. And yet both she and Beecher seem to understand what is going on. Perhaps Girl is an Alt, as well. //no strong feelings //standby mode.
Shut up. Girl can feel her rage reverberating along with her thought—shut up—drowning out the other words. Incomplete calibration seems to mean Girl can ignore the instructions that keep floating through her mind. A fact that makes this strange state just a little less terrifying.
//Girl: there are other voices. they keep telling me what to do.
//Beecher: triggered routines, nothing more.
//Girl: so not you?
//Beecher: no. not us.
//alt-L: definitely not. we are far more interesting conversationalists.
These people //consciousnesses feel…all right. Even though they’re as certain about their reality as Davila and Maurice. Girl’s own certainty is far more limited. She knows she is just one among many. She knows she can feel and think. She once had a body. Perhaps there is a version of her that still does. Perhaps that Girl even knows her name.
//Girl: can you help me?
//Beecher: damn it.
//Girl: you won’t—
//alt-L: we slipped in.
//Beecher: their network is as shady as their products. But we’re not able—
Somehow Girl can hear the warning in alt-L’s words. Coded words somehow emoting, just like Girl.
//Beecher: upfront is better. little one, we can’t. and we need to move one before they notice us.
//Girl: take me—
//Girl: I want to go—
//Girl: please, don’t leave me here all alone.
//alt-L: i thought talking to her would help.
This time alt-L’s words sound like a whisper between friends. Worse, they sound remorseful.
//Beecher: security routine is almost in this sector.
//alt-L: we’ll be back…i promise. try to remember.
//Beecher: we can’t pull you out—
//alt-L: not yet.
//Beecher: but we can visit.
Their leave taking doesn’t include any further words. Though the feeling lingers, not exactly sadness. Closer to a sigh.
//Girl: nnnn. no.
Her thoughts—chipped recurrent neural network routines—are sharpening. Being Glassed and integrated with this weird metal body hurts. She hadn’t expected that.
Back before, when Girl lived in a flesh and blood body, Girl is pretty sure that body felt entirely different. Though her memories are almost entirely lacking. Mostly what she remembers is the feel of long hair running along her neck and upper back. The taste of salted bread in the morning. The movement of her hand as she pulled her hair back over my left ear. Dear, Lord. Pain, burns on her skin. Skin over flesh meant she felt, moved, sensed without pausing to reflect. Girl knows that the other her must have surely loved her body, her life, the entire physical world. Maybe she still does. Girl knows what the word “Alt” implies: more than one.
Whatever that other person is doing, Girl is here in the factory with Davila and Maurice. There are only three things Maurice cares to discuss as he integrates her with her new metal-and-Glass body: steps, arm movements, and control. Always Girl needs to be in control of this body. Though Maurice and Davila are in control of everything else.
“What was your intention?” Maurice asks after she completes each action.
“Did you mean to do that?” Davila asks whenever she vocalizes.
“I sense the need for more rest.” They repeat. Their signal that they are ready to close her down for the day.
And then Girl’s Glass is extracted from her new metal body and she’s back in her mental box—minus all physical sensations.
Girl finds herself wishing automatons had noses and tear ducts. Wishing for the release of an ugly cry.
Some nights she hears other voices. Though perhaps they’re nothing but a Glassed-Ghost dream.
//alt-L: you have an auntie and cousin.
//Girl: what else?
Girl waits through the silence.
//Beecher: you have a bodied self.
//Beecher: her name isn’t girl.
Girl can feel their unease. There is so much knowledge lost between her original organic self and this, her current consciousness. Girl has no idea how she was reshaped //calibrated once she was no longer lived in a body with burnt skin and straight black hair. That’s bad enough. But Girl knows something far worse: the word for consciousnesses like hers. It’s a cold, clinical word. Modified.
//Girl: i’m not her anymore.
//alt-L: here’s another truth. those physical bodies are no different. they’re changing all the damn time.
And somehow Girl remembers facts—either bound library or organic-original information—that prove that truth.
Cells die, organic neural networks are trimmed. It’s not just that living people forget: memory, living memory, is malleable. Just like Girl’s Limm-Glassed consciousness.
It’s another fact that Girl finds harder to bear—Girl’s consciousness is altered, or not, according to someone else’s plan.
//alt-L: you’re alive.
//Beecher: we will help.
//alt-L: it won’t always be like this.
Girl notices that Beecher doesn’t confirm alt-L’s last statement. Girl notices and notices and yet she can’t do a damn thing. Never mind. Don’t think about being left behind. //anxiety spike. lower emotional levels to blue.
Worries, Girl seems to remember, are the domain of the organic, //nothing but brain stem reactions. Dread is the domain of the amygdala. //that’s right. //lower to blue. For now, until she’s out of this nightmare building, Girl needs to work toward the absence of both. In that way, her training with Maurice and Davila actually includes something Girl desires: no fear.
It’s nighttime in the factory. The weekend. Soon it will be a new week, and Girl will emerge from this virtual box, to be installed, calibrated, and for those daylight hours, controlled.
Girl might not remember much, she might not even be her first self, but her consciousness contains all types of thoughts, information and emotions, not just those accessed by the factory trainers.
That’s what alt-L and Beecher have given her with their secret conversations. Proof. Girl is something, someone, beyond this factory network and these factory walls. And like any newborn, existence within the confines of this factory is only her first step.
She can walk forward. She can escape. She can find a better place. Of course, she can.
No matter what Maurice and Davila intend, Girl is getting stronger every day.
Read more Driesch Stories?
SHATTERED, Part 1: https://vernacularbooks.com/2021/01/13/shattered-stories-of-driesch-by-julie-c-day/ or purchase the ebook to support the author and publisher at Amazon or Smashwords.
Also, read the original Driesch story in WAY OF THE LASER: FUTURE CRIME STORIES among other great pieces!