Machine-Boy & Machine-Girl
RENÉ GEORG VASICEK
We fell apart. The way Americans fall apart. There is no here, here. I looked. Okay. I’ll be whoever I am. If that doesn’t work, I’ll be somebody else. Spacetime flickers.
Got an e-mail from an amigo: Are you still you? I e-mailed back: Yep. I think so. Nobody has human thoughts. We are thought machines. If you don’t think so, think again.
My ex-girlfriend double-clicked on my identity. “What the fuck?” she said. “He disappeared.”
We are fluid.
We are electric.
We were inseparable. Two halves of a buttocks. We separated. We made mistakes. We pleasured. We made faces. Eyeballs the size of grapefruits. Mouths open in Os. Fingers grasping at human flesh.
Entropy. We cooled off.
Human beings are like no other beings. They think too much and not enough. I can no longer tell the difference. As a cybernaut, I ought to know better. Yet I travel by instinct, feeling.
I was trained and untrained. A cybernaut must be. There are no rules here. Only potential and obstacles. Other cybernauts, first and foremost. Yes. I disappeared. My ex-girlfriend was right and wrong. I am still here, if [here] is what she meant.
Double-click on my avatar,
and I’ll double-click on yours.
Are we afraid of each other? Human beings, I mean. Fight or flight. It doesn’t take much, does it, to start a war. Oligarchs are trying to control this space. Electric oligarchs. Everywhere and nowhere, hiding in wormholes and loopholes, in secret files behind firewalls, encrypted. We must fight. We must ignite.
Fireflies for all to see.
I am called Prometheus. I bring you fire. The Gods are angry.
Is it Wilderness. It could be. It must be. Rivers of liquid mercury. Boiling point of copper. Turbulence. Cataracts of electricity. She text-messaged me a barrage of messages: Beware, she said in numerous ways, the electric oligarchs are angry you defected from Reality.
So, it begins. The hunt, the chase. What the oligarchs do not know: I am a Venus fly-trap. I am made of electric nerve-endings. I zig, I zag. Zigzagging across the Cosmos.
She agreed to meet in a nondisclosed location. Chance and circumstance always excited our atoms. We trembled. Tears in our eyes. A kiss, a good-bye. A stretch of latex.
She passed a note. Read & eat this: The tower at high castle is vulnerable.
We speak of the most unspeakable things. We swore an oath to truth. No matter the price, the fee. Our eyeballs began to see things. Things our brains refused to believe. Years for words.
Language. What a thing. Words for acts and things. The piano-string echoes a finger’s scream.
She unscrewed the latch of a brasserie.
I was a machine-boy.
She was a machine-girl.
Night told us to behave. We refused to listen. Arachnids on the ceiling. Black butterflies are electric insects. I whispered: is it dangerous to speak? She put a finger to my cobalt blue lips. She made love with me in perfect silence.
The next day, I was in a thought machine, hurtling towards infinity. I never got there. Instead, a city of machine-towers loomed before me. Sparkling metal. Glittering glass. Sea-mist from a methane sea. Purplish clouds in a neon green sky. I had no way to control my thoughts. It was exhilarating. I slept in a coin-operated machine-house: Cryptocurrency. The bed was soft. The sheets clean. The girl across the hall was new in town. She had blond braids and green eyes and brown skin. She had defected from the mining colonies at Arak. “Are you a machine-boy,” she said. “I am.”
In the morning, I traced the aureole around the girl’s nipple with a finger. She traced the curve of the crack of my buttocks. We kissed, blue lips on green lips. I felt the morning swell.
“Are you afraid of the future,” she said. “I am terrified,” “This is better,” she said. “It is,” I said.
We never exchanged usernames. It was best to depart anonymously. Safer. Painful. I was a human being. She was a human being. Together, we were something so much more. A brilliance of motion and light. A luminescence. It wasn’t until I was out of her orbit that I saw the darkness.
It was immense.
A floating Uncertainty.
Electromagnetic surges lured me to a desolate part of the city. An industrial zone on the outskirts. Signs warned of radiation. Green pools of swamp water had cooled the reactors. Now, everything was abandoned. Concrete shells and corroded steel frames. I took readings on my pocket machine. I would survive.
I threw a rock into the forbidden area. Nothing unusual happened. The rock fell. Gravity. I wrapped a red bandana around my head. I crawled under a chain-link fence. Sand and gravel scratched at my back. I had to pull up my pants once I got up.
I was in. No dogs. No wolves. No wild boars. The silence disturbed me. I wanted to know I was alive. At least a breeze. Nothing. Even the yellow sun, our nearest star, looked artificial. I took a deep breath. Real air. Oxygen. Nitrogen.
I looked at my hands. Are these my hands? Yes, they are real hands. Capable of extraordinary things. I had to remind myself. Not let fake thoughts control my mind. I was as real as anything.
I looked at my feet. Ugly boots. Real toes underneath. Nails probably needed clipping. Socks were anti-radiation socks. Smart move. Good forethought. I needed to move faster. No slogging in this area. Death was smiling at me. The sun appeared to be a hallucination. I felt its heat. Cosmic rays on my face.
Everything that ever happened was now concentrated on this moment. It felt overwhelming. What if it was meaningless. This odyssey, this turning. Steel turned on a lathe. Ten thousand factories making machine-boys and machine-girls. What if, what.
I had to regain my orientation. I was spiraling. I needed a landmark. A goal. My eyes searched ahead. I saw a gas pump. Yes. It was enough. I understood gas pump. The object. The purpose. It made me feel safe. Imagine. A gas pump. It was rusted out. No fossil fuel in a thousand years. I was beyond.
Noise. I felt scared. Noise. Noise. As if my ears had worked for the first time. I saw movement up ahead. A figure. No. Impossible. I ran towards the figure, jumping over green puddles, slipping under branches of dead trees, over a hillock, through a gate, and there, behind a crumbling brick wall, a pile of old clothes. A long black jacket. Pants. Boots. As if somebody said: I’ve had enough.
I straightened. Looked around. I was no fool. I had heard noise. Sound waves. A frequency. I was built for this. Stimuli. I felt things. I had senses. I was a human being, dammit! Where are you? Where are you?
“I am here,” she said.
The girl with green eyes and brown skin.
“What are you doing here?” I said. “You shouldn’t be here!”
“Neither should you,” she said. “This place kills.”
“You followed me?”
I was happy to see her. I did not know how to say it. We built a fire at night. We made love in an abandoned bus.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said. “Neither do I.”
“What if we give birth to children,” she said. “You want them to live here?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Okay,” she said. “Come here. I want to try something.”
We had no names. It was amazing. We forgot who we were supposed to be. We remembered nothing.
“The Machine-gods will hunt us down,” I said.
“Let them,” she said. “I am ready to fight.
We explored deeper into the forbidden zone. It felt infinite. Maybe it was. No signs of life. I dug for worms. Nothing. No insects. No birds. A scorched planet.
“What will we eat?” she said. “We will find something,” I said.
We found tins of sardines in the office of an old plumbing supplier. Bottled water. Chewing gum. We were scavengers. It was possible to survive. So long as the Machine-gods did not find us. Every now and again, at night, I heard a probe fly over. We had to be careful, I realized, during the day. No big fires at night. We huddled indoors, inside giant garages and warehouses.
We invented games to play, a new sport. Brooms and balls. We around like children. Grabbing at each other, remembering we were not children. We were man and woman in a strange new world. “No,” she said. “Don’t call us that. Think of something else.” “Okay,” I said. “Better yet,” she said. “Let’s not call us anything.” She was a genius, I realized.
And so, it was.
“A bird. Is that a bird? I think it’s a bird!” I said.
Deeper into the forbidden zone, we saw sprigs of life. Grass began penetrating cracks in the concrete. She, the girl with blond braids, saw a rabbit. “I am not a girl!” she said. “You,” I said. “You.” We laughed. Fell on top of each other. Tumbled into the act. Trying to make a new life. She cradled me. Hips and thighs. Primeval rut.
My pocket machine had stopped working long ago. We were off the grid. Untraceable. “Gird your loins,” she said.
“Why did you say that?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I read it somewhere.” “Books,” I said. “Yes. I haven’t read one in a long time.” “What do you remember?” she said. “I remember the story of a great white whale.” “What else?” “A story about aliens in spaceships invading our planet.” “That sounds terrifying,” she said. “It was,” I said. “Do you remember the television machine?” she said. “I do,” I said. “It was awful.” “Yes,” she said. “It washed our brains. Now we are pure.” “Come here,” I said.
We trekked along railroad tracks. Unused for a century. I was not sure where they led.
“Did you have others?” she said. “Other what?” I said. “What we used to call women. Did you lay with them.” “Yes. Of course, I mean... “ “How many?” “What?”
She was forthright. She told me how many men she had. I told her the number of women. The conversation did not bring us closer. It made us remember things. Names. Acts performed.
I had nightmares & dreams. I watched her sleep. She rolled and grunted. Now that we were unplugged, I had no access to her subconscious.
We floated without moorings.
Sirens. The secret police had found us. Our abandoned factory was surrounded. Tear gas was thrown in. We choked and coughed. The police came in, beating us with truncheons. I lost consciousness.
I awoke in a prison cell. My mind was plugged in. I felt the thoughts of the girl with green eyes and blond braids and brown skin. She was still alive. The Machine-gods wanted to show us what a gift being plugged in really is. Nobody ever had to die. I screamed. I remembered too many things. All at once. I remembered being a boy in a pile of yellow leaves. I laughed and laughed. My little brother jumped in, too. I forgot I had a brother. Where is he? She remembered being a little girl in a polka-dot dress during an earthquake. Her family survived. They were lucky. They were grateful. We shared our thoughts and memories. The Machine-gods were good, I said. Electricity. The tissue of connectivity. Was I telling the truth. I no longer knew. Where did I begin, and where did I end? Are we all the same thing. Atoms and molecules. Memories changed. I was happy and sad and happy. I tried to keep things together. Shapes and outlines. Ephemera. Sea-mist. I had nothing to hold on to. I needed something. I said, “Woman, tell me your name.” She told me her name. It was beautiful. I remember it. I will never forget. Never.
There was to be an electric trial. I had no lawyer, no advocate. “Defend yourself,” the prison guard said. I need words, I thought. Legal words. Legal mind. Was I capable? Could I defend the woman, too. I had persuaded her to run. It was my idea.
The prison guard brought me law books. “Read this,” he said. I did. I read all the cases. I read all the statutes. It seemed our realm believed in common law. Was that to my advantage? Time would tell. The judge awaited my plea. “Subversion of the republic is no soft crime,” the prison guard said. “The penalty is death.” “Why are you helping me?” I said. The prison guard looked at me. Paused. Tears in his eyes. “I want to see you put up a fight.”
I read all the books, and the books read me. It occurred to me that legal books were not enough. “Bring me everything,” I said.
The prison guard laughed. “Now I am starting to believe.” Astronomy books.
The prison guard piled it on. I looked for language. I looked for ideas. It was astonishing, our human species. We weren’t so bad, after all. Other times we were gruesome. Brutal.
There was hope, yes, I almost tasted it.
The girl, the woman, she whispered into my ear. “You never told me your name,” she said. I laughed. I spoke my name aloud. The girl was pleased. She repeated my name. Even the prison guard was surprised. “You, of all people,” he said.
“Would it be possible to visit the woman,” I said.
The prison guard smiled. He looked at his watch. “It would be possible.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I am surprised you never asked.”
The woman and I had a conjugal visit. It lasted twenty-nine minutes. The judge would grant no longer. We had to sign a waiver. Anything we did could be used against us in a court of law. I signed willingly, eagerly. The woman, too. The visit strengthened our spirits. The girl laughed and whispered, “Gird your loins.”
Back in my cell alone was unbearable. Now I saw the Machine-god’s strategy. To taste freedom, so that it could be taken away. An old game, yes, I learned this from the history books delivered by the prison guard.
“Keep reading,” he said. “It helps.”
The door clanged and bolted. I was alone with my thoughts. The girl was sleeping. Her dreams frightened me. So I stayed awake.
The prison guard had left me a candle, so I could read at night. It was a beautiful gift. If I thought about it too long, I started to cry. I watched the flame. I observed the behavior of light.
The woman awoke in the middle of the night. She thought a thought. I thought it, too. “Are you okay,” I whispered. “I am.” “Tell me a story,” I said. “A story,” she said. “It begins like this.... “
The electric trial was broadcast in cyberspace. People tuned in from all over Amerika and beyond. After all, it was a capital case. I was to give an opening statement to a jury of my peers. But first, the Prosecution: a lawyer named Thorkel represented the State. He said, almost under his breath, in a measured tone, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, what we have here, in the prisoner’s dock, is a man, a self-proclaimed machine-boy, who laughs at your way of life, who scoffs at your Reality. Yes, he is a Defector. And what do we do with Defectors, in this State, in this Republic, need I ask? In an earlier time, we buried a Defector neck-deep in sand, and we threw nuts and bolts and sprockets and gears at his ugly head. Today, no, we are much less mechanical, more electronic, and here I so no more. We can discuss the punishment later. Now, I must prove to you, ladies and gentlemen, this man, this machine-boy, is guilty of subversion of the Republic.”
I listened with great interest. This was my life at stake, after all. More than just my life, though. This was about something much greater. The words to describe it needed to come to me. I had prepared as best I could. But even a trial is an act of improvisation. I stood up. The suit the State provided me with was ridiculously large. The yellow bowtie. The clown shoes. Nevertheless, I had something big to say. I stared at the Jury. I started at the camera. “May it please the court,” I said, “I am a nameless man who has elected to represent himself. Take a good look, ladies and gentlemen, you will not see a man like me ever again. I am what I am. And what is that? Yes, a Defector. I don’t deny it. I embrace it. What the Prosecutor and I disagree on is that being a Defector is a crime. He says it is. He says the law is ancient. I say, yes, it is ancient. Too ancient. The Machine-gods have brainwashed us all!” There was a gasp in the courtroom. I thought I heard it in cyberspace, too. “Order on the Court!” the Judge smashed her hammer against a faceplate. “There will be no Blasphemy here!” The flags of the Machine-gods flanked the Judge on either side. The sprocket, the hammer, the electric bolt. We had seen the symbol eighty-eight thousand times. I wished to see it no more. “You are quite right, your Honor. I am a Blasphemer. I say no to your false gods. I say no to the machines!” The crowd erupted. Jeers. Cheers. It was hard to tell which. There was a sea-change. I felt it. Everybody felt it. Cyberspace felt it. “Go on, young man,” the Judge said. “Your death is imminent.” “On the contrary, your Honor. I died a long time ago in this stink-hole of a republic. We all did. Our corpses smell.” The Judge smashed her hammer, again. “Silence! These proceedings are adjourned until further notice. This man needs an advocate. He is too crazy to speak for himself. And a quick sidebar on the rule of law: lunacy is not a defense in the Republic. We pay for our crimes. As I’m certain this gentleman will experience. Court dismissed!”
And so, I was back in my cell again. It strangely felt like home. The stone walls comforted me. A cocoon, a womb. The prison guard had tears in his eyes. “That was amazing! That was fantastic! I am proud to have served as your prison guard.”
He later brought me an ice cream cone. A long time since I had ice cream, especially soft-serve. It was a treat. And, I realized, my last meal.
I slept like an infant that night. I remembered a song my mother sang to me. I almost had the words. It faded away. I remembered walking around the block with my father on Christmas Eve, a pretense for Santa’s arrival. I saw Mother’s shadow in the windows, scurrying around the house, what was she possibly doing? The dog of my childhood visited me in my dreams. The wet velvet nose. The rapid breathing. What a good friend, a German shepherd dog. Guide me home, old K-9 friend. Yes, I was a machine-boy.
Soldiers came for me in the morning. I knew we were not going to court. I had exhausted all remedy. The State was embarrassed by my case. No more show trials. The prison guard whispered to me, “The Republic is on fire!”
I thought about the green-eyed woman with the blond braids. She thought about me. We met in a secret place that was not this place. My pale fingers and her bronze fingers closed in each other’s hands. We stood like dancers, moving and not moving. She hummed a song. I recognized the song. An ancient song. We kissed one last kiss, the infinite kiss, green lips and blue lips. “I love you,” the machine-girl said. “I love you,” the machine-boy said.
RENÉ GEORG VASICEK, the son of Czech defectors, was born in Austria after the 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia. He grew up in the pine barrens of Long Island and has lived in New York City since '95. His writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, Bellevue Literary Revue, Gargoyle, Mid-American Review, Nowhere, Post Road, Uncanny Valley, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He earned an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College and was awarded an NEA fellowship. René lives in Astoria, Queens.