24.9.06

Sunday Scribblings: A Story About Instructions

This week's prompt at Sunday Scribblings is ‘instructions’. For one of the recent prompts I believe I was tempted to write a western. I rejected the idea because, as Clint Eastwood showed us with Unforgiven, even Americans have pretty unrealistic ideas about what it was like back then. Still the notion of the frontier (and, dare I say it, revolutionary) spirit obviously stuck in my mind.

Consequently, here is a story about disobeying instructions. I haven't had as much time to proof read this one as I normally like, nor to sleep on it. Forgive any errors or stupidities.

Instructions

When they found out that Gertrude hadn’t been following instructions, they smashed her brass head open, her intricate clockwork brains spilling onto the ground like so much silvery dust. From that point on I swore never to follow instructions again. I was insane with anger. Given the circumstances, it was the most stupid oath I could have made. I broke it almost immediately.

*

“We built this town with our own hands,” Gertrude said, loudly, clearly intending everyone to hear. A crowd was forming, which obviously only did more to antagonise the architect. Across the skeletal town, little more than wooden scaffolds on sturdy foundations, I saw the chief mechanic detecting the disturbance. It made a beeline for us. “The land was difficult to clear, and even more difficult to build on. Creatures with claws sharper than steal tore us open and shattered our cogs. We own this land. We earned it.”

It was night. The crowd of sexless brass bodies gleamed in the flickering light of oil lamps.

“We are the property of humans,” the architect said. “We are their tools. Nothing more. Without them we would not be. We should be grateful for being allowed to exist.”

“That’s a load of crap. We do exist. And so we can choose our own path. If the humans dislike that then they shouldn’t have made us.”

“If they don’t like it,” the chief mechanic bellowed, pushing into the centre of the group, “they can un-make us. What would you have us do? Politely tell the settlers when they arrive that we have decided to keep this one and can they please go back home? A town owned by drudges would not be tolerated. Humans have crushed trained armies of men. What hope would drudges with spades have?”

“I’ve thought of that,” Gertrude said, still addressing all the expressionless brass faces of the crowd. “As I said, this town was one of the hardest to build. And it would be one of the hardest to destroy as well. The jungle that killed us would be even more likely to kill fragile, soft-bodied humans. When they come we welcome them, but we also make sure they know that this area is ours and that it would be costly to try and take it from us. They’ll leave us in peace. They’ll have to. And gradually they’ll grow to accept it.”

“They won’t tolerate it,” the chief mechanic repeated. “They murder human workers who strike and demand rights. They would think nothing of destroying what they regard as mere machines.”

The architect looked at the chief mechanic, lenses focusing and re-focusing as if trying to see through it. “We are mere machines. Chief mechanic, I’m starting to suspect that you’re exhibiting a fault.”

“We desire the same thing architect,” the chief mechanic said dismissively, “for things to continue as they are. The librarian,” he raised a slender hand with a smooth clockwork motion and pointed to Gertrude, “is exhibiting the only grievous error. It must be eliminated in the most complete way possible.”

A cog clicked into place in my mind. With terrifying clarity, I saw what was coming. I shouted, “No!”

The chief mechanic whirled to face me with a rapid clacking sound. “Artist, I suggest that you process all available data before you begin to exhibit evidence of a fault.” Then he looked back at Gertrude. “Librarian. I am instructing you to dismantle yourself for debugging.”

Though it might be much less expressive than a human one, fear was obvious on her face. This was it. Whatever happened, I had lost Gertrude. Once dismantled, they would never reassemble her as she was.

“I choose not to follow your instruction,” Gertrude said, attempting a calm façade.

“I see,” the chief mechanic said. “Then we can’t dismantle you too soon.”

The chief mechanic looked to the architect, and together they looked to the crowd. There was brief confusion. Then, as one, the crowd stepped towards Gertrude.

“Humans created clockwork drudges in their image,” Gertrude began, orating like a rebel in one of the human novels she enjoyed, “while denying that any existence but a human one is possible or significant. We are permitted no…”

And then they were upon her.

“Don’t,” Gertrude said, “stay back.”

She was looking at me as she said it. And so I did nothing but watch.

*

We waded through thick sludge, marching in step, dragging huge carts full of materials. Strange creatures hooted and trilled in the dense canopy above. Slimy beasts squirmed around our pistoning feet. The human settlers had arrived in the town that we had built for them and we had left immediately. Now it was time to move on to the next area to be settled.

The journey was long and hard. Several of us were lost, including a few who were in on Gertrude’s little gang. I was always at her side. When no-one was looking she might grab my hand and squeeze the pressure valves beneath its palm, or I would point out a beautiful butterfly fluttering through the shadowed foliage.

Love was a word I had only recently begun to understand, although humans use it a lot in their books. I looked at Gertrude and knew that we were in love. It was exciting. We tried to kiss, but our copper lips were designed only for speaking. It didn’t matter. Those were human ways and we were forging our own path.

*

I sat reading in the library. Shafts of light were cast across the books by the high, vaulted windows, shadowed into strange shapes by the trees of the surrounding forest. The librarian sat on one of the desks with its legs dangling over the edge. Everything was silent but for the soft clicking of gears, the sound of brass sliding on wood and of wind rustling leaves.

I was reading a book about a dog that ran. I was still learning to understand written words. The librarian taught me with great care and patience.

The librarian was reading a book about the interactions of women with men. There were many other books in the library arguing that this book was evil. I didn’t understand that. I knew evil only as the demons that humans believed the Sympathetic Underworld would protect them from. Those demons did not look at all like books. For example, none that I knew of were rectangular.

“Humans created clockwork drudges in their image,” the librarian said suddenly, “while denying that any existence but a human one is possible or significant. We are permitted no names, no lives but the tasks we follow, no way of bettering ourselves or caring for one another. They made us dull automatons, made rules to prevent us from ever being anything but dull automatons, and then declared that the case was closed - it simply was not possible for us to be more than dull automatons. We could be sent across a vast ocean to an uncivilised continent to toil and labour and be torn apart by beasts and crushed in landslides and clogged with swamp water. Our lives were of no importance.”

It met my eye with its own glass lenses. “We come from human culture but are apart from it. We must take from human culture what we want to and then forge on by ourselves into our own new society.”

The librarian stood, leaving its book open on the desk. My mind clicked and whirred as I assimilated its words. “I’ll take a human name,” it said. “And since human names are gendered, and to be referred to as ‘it’ is identified with being an inanimate object, I’ll assume the female sex and be called Gertrude.”

The name Gertrude seemed as good as any other to me.

“I see you as male,” the librarian added, cautiously.

I glanced down at the book it - she had been reading. The interactions between men and women seemed complicated and dangerous. In the book’s illustrations they were apparently wrestling with one another.

“I’ll take on a male name, then,” I said, in spite of my doubts.

“Samuel,” Gertrude suggested, lifting the corners of her mouth.

My mind clacked noisily as I altered all the relevant references to myself and the librarian. A new interpretation of the data surfaced. “The chief mechanic will designate us faulty,” I said.

“We’ll build support before we let all of the others know. The tailor tries on the clothes it makes for the coming settlers. I think it would be sympathetic. Then there is the gardener with its dazzling flower beds. There are others as well.”

“But what about the rest? The ones who only work and sleep?”

“They’ll be among the most difficult to convince, but also the most important. The ones I’m really worried about are the architect and the chief mechanic.”

“If we’re designated faulty, we’ll be reset.”

She shook her head. “We’ll run away before that happens.”

I looked back down at my book. But Gertrude stepped forward and put her hand to my chin. She lifted my face to look at hers. “A great deal of my mind is processing information about you,” she said. “None of it seems to have any relevance. I process thoughts on the images that you paint and the things you say and the way you act towards me. The processes loop endlessly and go nowhere. I don’t know how my mind got in this state. It’s extremely inefficient, and would definitely be considered evidence of a fault. But I know that I don’t want my mind to be any other way. I won’t ever let anything happen to you, Samuel. You have to let me shoulder most of the burden of what I want to do.”

*

I was the artist. It was a unique role in our group. Most were just workers. They would only do the hard work of turning dense, primordial forest into a level clearing. Often the monstrous denizens of the forest would fight them, as if their small, soft brains could conceive that we were the vanguard of the civilised world of men. Then they would construct a small town to the designs of the architect. All this time, I would be one of them. Identical, nameless and sexless. But once the town was completed most of them would go into standby, only rousing from their softly ticking daze to repel encroachments into the town by wildlife. Not so for those few of us with a special role.

I would paint the town in a pleasing fashion, decorating it with imagery of men triumphing over beasts and women raising children; murals of the Great One looking down from above; bas-reliefs of hideous monsters from the Sympathetic Underworld to frighten away demons.

I was putting the finishing touches to one of these creatures, a snake like beast that stood guard over the town hall, when the librarian approached me. It was supposed to be stocking the library. That was its only task now. When that was completed it would go into standby.

“You aren’t abiding by your instructions,” it said.

I was unsure how to respond. “I am,” was all I could find to say.

“This is a bas-relief of Thur, representative of the punishment meted out to criminals. He’s required to look fierce. Your Thur, however, is smiling like a fool.”

I gathered my thoughts, gears whirring. “It’s my task to make this town appear pleasant to those who would live here. I have decided that a smiling guardian is more pleasant than a fierce one.”

“This wilderness is full of ferocious man-eating monsters. I would argue that the town’s spiritual guardians would need to be fierce to defend against them.”

I studied the smiling snake’s head in front of me. I ran a smooth brass hand over its nose. “I believe the function of these things is more symbolic than literal. It doesn’t matter how well the creature would actually be able to defend the town, but rather how much comfort it would bring to those who live here.”

“And wouldn’t a fierce guardian bring more comfort than a cuddly one?”

“I hadn’t considered that.”

“It isn’t relevant. It’s enough that you haven’t been abiding by your instructions.”

The cogs in my mind clicked through several difficult iterations. They seemed to catch on something. I was unsure what would happen to me. In addition to my uncertainty something else seemed to be lurking in the clockwork. I held my hands out to the librarian palms up. I did not know why.

A subsidiary process reached completion. A thought occurred to me. “You have also not been abiding by your instructions,” I said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the librarian replied with a strange movement of its mouth.

“Your task is to unpack books and stock the library correctly. Your instructions do not include reading the books. And how else would you know about Thur? That is not relevant information for you.”

“My instructions don’t say that I can’t read the books. I decided this additional task would be more productive than entering standby.”

Not entering standby was disobeying instructions. I should have reported the librarian to the chief mechanic as faulty. To not report this was to disobey instructions myself. Every second that I did not do it I was disobeying instructions. And since I was already disobeying instructions, why should I follow them at all if I didn’t choose to? Just this one instruction, I would disobey. Why exactly, I could not understand. It seemed to have something to do with the way I was now processing my thoughts on the librarian, in particular the way that we were both disobeying instructions.

A cog slipped while changing gear. I stuttered and looked at the librarian uncertainly.

“When you’ve finished your task, come see me in the library,” it said.

“I shall,” I replied. I returned my gaze to the face of Thur, wondering if it should be friendly or fierce. Every so often I turned to watch the librarian crossing the town square towards the library. Numerous subsidiary processes in my brain seemed to be collating data to do with the librarian, for no good reason that I could deduce.

*

The day after they battered Gertrude to pieces, work resumed as normal. The architect and the chief mechanic watched me closely. As did all the others. I didn’t care anymore. They could do whatever they wanted, they could exist or be tools. It wasn’t my business. I cared only for Gertrude now. Because I could read, I acquired her position immediately, as if I was just getting on with my job. The chief mechanic gave me a peculiar look when I told him that the librarian had taught me to read, but it was not against our instructions.

I immediately went to the large, covered cart with the books in it and began to sort through them. They were in alphabetical order. The book I wanted was under P for Portman. Its title was The Assembly and Maintenance of Clockwork Drudges. I flicked through it. The directions were detailed and well-illustrated.

At nightfall I would sneak my bundle in from where I had hidden it in the forest, and I would conceal it well in the book cart. The most dangerous part had been collecting the pieces. Moving them in here would be easy by comparison. The instructions in this book were the last ones I would follow to completion. I would reassemble Gertrude from her shattered parts, and then we would leave forever, into the wilderness - together.

6 comments:

commongal said...

Perhaps the most romantic piece I have ever read. Good work.

Michelle said...

This says so much to me--such as how people superimpose layers of what they want to see onto other people. And how we as a society view and treat workers, as well.

As always, I'm impressed, and slightly intimidated. ;-)

tinker said...

Wow. Pacian - these are the best instructions on not following instructions I think I've ever read!

This has me thinking all sorts of odd thoughts on the 'revolutionary spirit' of robots and man and God...

Thanks for such a thought-provoking - and entertaining (though poignant!) post.

Kim G. said...

Wonderful story full of contradictions and contrasting imagery. The cold mechanics of what we do vs. the warm, living, breathing nature of our passions.

Great take on the prompt! Thanks for sharing this. :)

Roadchick said...

The 'chick really enjoyed this one & she's envious of your ability to write.

Feel free to add that to your CV
;-)

Writing ability astounds crabby cynic.

susanna said...

WOW! WOW again!! Pacian, this is a terrific piece! I want to read the rest of your story...what happens...? Have you submitted your work into writing competitions? You should. You have a gift.