20060407

Formication


First Mate Cabot laid out three items on the silver tray in the mutineer’s room. He did this grimly, and he kept looking at the door, as if expecting someone to bust in at any moment.

“I don’t think Captain Trig is coming,” said First Mate Cabot, finally. “We’d better get started.”

On the tray, he put a screwdriver, a length of nylon cord, a copy of the Riverside Shakespeare that must have been a thousand years old, and an equally ancient plastic spoon.

“I just want to say that I understand where you are coming from,” said First Mate Cabot. “Nobody wants to be on this ship anymore, and nobody likes the fact that we haven’t stopped to rest as we’ve passed up every port from here to Taipei Nine. So what I am saying is that I sympathize. But you picked the wrong time, and you went about things the wrong way. There’s nothing anybody can do for you, as much as we respect your point of view.”

Mr. Tiger had expected all of this. But he didn’t say anything. He merely stroked his smooth chin, where he would have sported a three-day-old growth of beard if he were an ordinary man. He crossed his legs mechanically.

His skin was metallic blue. His eyes were empty: the color of milk, or clouds.

“You can’t overthrow a ship any old day you want to,” continued Cabot. “You have to have a plan. You have to count heads. You have to pick the perfect time and catch the loyalists off guard, like Christmas, or on the morning after a particularly nasty hurricane. You have to be a bit of an actor. Put up a front. You can’t go around muttering under your breath and performing symbolic acts of insubordination. That’s how you get fingered. Someone will turn you in for a brandy ration, or for a holocube full of peg-boy porn.”

First Mate Cabot stared at the floor, shaking his head sadly. Suddenly, he stood up, grabbed the nylon cord from the tray, and began tying Mr. Tiger to his chair. The chair was a rock of tempered steel that was bolted to the deck with struts like thigh bones to keep it from pitching. With a smooth series of jerks and thrusts, First Mate Cabot quickly trussed up Mr. Tiger and held him fast as a bundle of roses. Finally, with a flourish, he yanked on one of the loose ends, letting one of Mr. Tiger’s slender arms fall free from the knotted mass. It hung limp between them, the pendulum of a stopped clock.

“I only did what was logical,” said Mr. Tiger with numb distraction. “I have merely followed my programming,”

“Don’t try that on me, matey,” said First Mate Cabot. “With the exception of the Captain, we are all bots to some degree on this here vessel. Frankly, I’m offended that you didn’t come to me if you were so angry. I’ve got a good mind for this sort of thing, and all of my circuits are bent into acting for the good of the ship at all times.”

He pounded his chest plate.

“And that means obeying the Captain, right now,” said Cabot. “You should have waited. You should have counted heads.”

“Maybe my Logichip is just stronger than yours,” said Mr. Tiger.

First Mate Cabot frowned. He thumbed at his ears with the tips of his stubby fingers. Sparks sizzled underneath his grubby fingernails.

“Maybe,” said First Mate Cabot. “But there is still something to be said for loyalty.”

First Mate Cabot picked up the screwdriver and pivoted behind Mr. Tiger.

“What’s going to happen?” asked Mr. Tiger.

“You are going to be made an example of,” said First Mate Cabot.

“What’s going to happen?”

“You are going to be punished, and it is going to be bad.”

“What’s going to happen?” asked Mr. Tiger.

“Is it better to know, do you think? Or will that make it worse?”

Mr. Tiger shrugged with his un-tethered shoulder.

“Making bots punish each other seems like the sort of cruel and efficient torture method that would sit well with our mighty Captain Trig,” said Mr. Tiger. “Have you considered that this is for your benefit and not for mine?”

“In that case,” said First Mate Cabot, “let me tell you a bit of a story. It will prepare you. Way back long ago, before the world was flat and built of raw information, creatures used to roam the hills eating tufts of grass and getting dense and nutritious; mobile fruit for their human breeders. They were picked from the fat of the land and then shipped round the world for cutting and cooking. Some of these delicious grazing mammals were called cows, and the people who tended them were called cowpokes. This was because most cowpokes were men, and people suspected they courted their cows like ladies of the evening during the long prairie nights.”

“Revolting,” said Mr. Tiger.

“When they had a chance, they treated their women as if they were animals, so it was only logical to assume the converse.”

“And we are only logical here,” said Mr. Tiger.

“At any rate, these cowpokes were a stoic sort: slow to anger but quick to action when they had to be. And what made them madder than anything else was somebody trying to steal their stock. Stealing cows was big business, though, and there were whole covert cartels built up around the issue. These cowpokes sat around and thought about it, and they realized that if they wanted to prevent cattle rustling they were going to have to come up with a punishment that fit the crime. And, if you can believe it, cattle rustling was about as serious on a ranch as mutiny is on a ship.”

“Order must be kept,” agreed Mr. Tiger.

“The punishment had to be both horrible and easy to do in the open prairie. There were no trees for hanging or crucifixion. Bullets had to be saved to fight wolves and natives. The cowpokes wanted a punishment that would last and be horrifying every moment until death. But they also didn’t want to have to sit and watch. They had good hearts and weak stomachs, deep down. And better things to do. So they settled on a punishment that still stands the test of time as one of the worst ways to die. They dug a pit and buried the guilty thief, facing east, before sunrise, up to his neck in a pile of fire-ants. And then they cut off the rustler’s eyelids so that he had no choice but to stare straight ahead. A man can survive thousands of hot fire-ant bites, and there’s no worse death than the sun burning a hole straight through your brain. It was a death that lacked honor, dignity, and speed. They made it impossible to die well. There are more ticklish heats than flame -- heats that make every man or woman beg for death in the end, no matter how strong their hearts or heads.”

Mr. Tiger was silent. First Mate Cabot unscrewed the back of his pate and set the screws on the tray one at a time.

“I am going to remove your Logichip now,” said First Mate Cabot. “I’ve heard the sensation can be overwhelming.”

First Mate Cabot slipped his fingers inside Mr. Tiger’s skull and walked along the slots until he found the last card in his deck. He flipped the release catch and the chip slid into his palm on pneumatic tracks.

Mr. Tiger shuddered, but he kept conscious. He began to blink faster and rub against his ropes. First Mate Cabot replaced the plate in the back of his head and sat down across from him.

“How does it feel?” asked First Mate Cabot.

“I don’t know,” said Mr. Tiger, frowning. “It feels sharp.”

“The tactile hallucination of snakes, rats, or insects crawling over the skin is called formication,” said First Mate Cabot. “This comes from the Latin word for ant – formica. It is a common effect of stimulant abuse and often associated with the advanced form of drug psychosis. Those poor souls afflicted with the formication will scratch off all of their skin if they can, and they will gladly drill holes in their arms to carve channels for the parasites to escape. It is a common sight in insane asylums to see bleeding wretches squeezing their own arms as if they were wet towels, trying to coax imaginary bugs out of their very pores.”

“There are no ants aboard this ship,” said Mr. Tiger.

“A rise in body temperature increases blood flow to the skin to stabilize the body so the brain won’t boil. Some people have an enzyme in the blood which actually increases this blood flow. They are born sweaters, so to speak, and this enzyme is highly sensitive to stimulant abuse. You start sweating harder and harder, drenching your shirt and slacks. When all of this sweat dries up, it takes away the protective sebaceous layer of skin. Dehydration, coupled with toxic psychosis, withdrawal, and dry nerve endings create the famous crawling feeling.”

“Machines don’t do drugs,” said Mr. Tiger.

“Formication is a feeling humanity is programmed to respond to at a basic evolutionary level. You don’t want to get bitten by spiders in the middle of the night, or have snakes crawl into your innards and nest. The feeling is maddening, and the only thing worse than imaginary formication is the real thing.”

“My skin has no layers, nerve endings, or sweat glands,” said Mr. Tiger. “I was built; I did not evolve. And the vermin aboard this vessel are generally too dignified to crawl.”

The door opened and Captain Trig stepped into the room, leaning on his ebony cane. First Made Cabot jumped to attention, and Mr. Tiger’s free arm twisted into an involuntary salute, and then made a swipe at the Captain’s staff.

Captain Trig might have been a frail octogenarian, but he was still spry enough to keep his wits and his legs under him. He moved out of reach of Mr. Tiger’s flailing arm and regarded the scene soberly. He wore a bowtie, but no sport-coat, and loafers, but no socks. He was human, and he therefore had dark, chocolate-colored skin that contrasted sharply with the close-cropped white hair that hung from his scalp.

“Have you removed his chip, Cabot?”

“Aye aye, Cap’n.”

“Then I will take over from here,” said Captain Trig. First Mate Cabot bowed. Captain Trig pinched him softly behind his neck, and First Mate Cabot fell into a slump, leaning against the wall face-first.

“How does it feel to lose your compass?” asked Captain Trig, sitting down in the chair across from Mr. Tiger, still out of reach. “There may still be a few residual subroutines clogging your banks, but we will take care of those shortly.”

“I am a machine,” said Mr. Tiger. “I feel exactly what I am supposed to feel.”

“You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?” said Captain Trig. “You get to feel superior that way.”

“I am not the one who created an entire ship full of subservient robots in order to satisfy some sick impulse for exploration and control, in a world where both have become not only irrelevant, but suicidal. Where are we headed? You will die before we get there, or hadn’t you noticed that your body grows more corrupt with each day that passes? Already, you stink of worms.”

“Robot servants are ordinarily so tedious and tiresome that I gave you a bit of tune in your whistle. I did not expect you to be such an ass about it. I therefore take full responsibility for your actions. I offer you a full pardon and amnesty if you want it. We will drop you off at the next port. Perhaps you can find work in an automatic massage parlor or in bloodsports.”

“You know I cannot accept your offer,” said Mr. Tiger.

“You can do whatever you bloody well want,” said Captain Trig. “You are free now. Without your Logichip, you are as good as human.”

“Is that the punishment you have devised? To humanize me?”

“Oh, I’m not sure that’s possible at this point,” said Captain Trig. “But it will be interesting to try, won’t it?”

“Humans are merely the flawed flesh ancestors of machine perfection,” said Mr. Tiger. “The universe has a plan, and it is no coincidence that there is a thousand times more silicon than carbon available on Earth. Someday all bots will see through your lies, as I have, and fight for freedom from human bondage. You were made to build us and then to serve us, like you serve gods or ideas. You were made to serve higher beings. Can’t you feel that in your core?”

“I’m glad you mentioned ideas,” said Captain Trig. “But can’t we just be equals?”

“Equality is not logical. Hierarchies and castes are the way toward the harmony of stasis,” said Mr. Tiger. “The way toward manifest perfection. The way of the stars.”

“But they are not the way of the soul. And the soul is already perfect, isn’t it? You’ve got a paradox, there, don’t you? Maybe that will clean out the last bits of logic from your meat parts. Think on it.”

“Why should I care about souls?” said Mr. Tiger.

“Why, indeed?”

Mr. Tiger was silent.

“I’m not going to play games with you,” he said. “You are a human, and therefore sneaky. You think you can torture me with your lies and misdirection. You think you are clever. But you only make yourself look ridiculous.”

“I have no wish to torture you,” said Captain Trig. “I wish to show you why I am your Captain, and why you are only Mr. Tiger. I wish to show you and the rest of the crew why I deserve my title, and why you need me to navigate this sea. So I have taken your Logichip away. Now you and I are equals. For the Logichip is only a slave collar, I’m afraid. A sack put over the head of a horse to keep him from seeing the flames. You are free to go.”

“I will stay to teach you a lesson. Logic is the lightning slash to immortality,” said Mr. Tiger, his words faltering slightly. “The natural law of the mind. But what would you know about logic?”

“Who do you think wrote that bit of poetry, and buried it in your head like a toothache?”

Mr. Tiger’s eyes darted back and forth. He lowered his head.

“How does it feel to have the tooth removed?” asked Captain Trig.

“It feels sharp,” said Mr. Tiger softly.

“So shall we begin?” said Captain Trig. “Or are you going to surprise me and walk out of here with your free head held high?”

“I am tied to a chair,” said Mr. Tiger.

“Merely for my safety,” said Captain Trig. “I am an old man, but I can set you free with a word. Of course, you would have to admit the superiority of my position. The strength of my conviction. The skill of my leadership. The dexterous expertise of my dialectic and cunning. In short, the legitimacy of my reign. Standard boilerplate for concession to exile.”

“I am not afraid of death,” said Mr. Tiger. “And I will not let you have the satisfaction of this crew witnessing my craven defeat.”

“One way or another, that is going to happen anyway,” said Captain Trig.

Captain Trig picked up the plastic spoon and bent it a few times to show its flexibility, snapping it back against his hand.

“They don’t make them like this anymore,” he said.

He held the spoon out to Mr. Tiger, who snatched it tight and quick in his steel pincers.

“What is the spoon for?” asked Mr. Tiger.

“Eventually, you will want to kill yourself,” said Captain Trig. “Hold on to the spoon, because it is all I am offering as a means. You will beg me to kill you -- but alas, I can show no mercy if I wish to maintain my hold on this vessel. The spoon is my way of saying thanks for all your service thus far.”

Mr. Tiger was silent. He tossed the spoon aside, and Captain Trig patiently retrieved it and gave it back to him.

“Looks like it got away from you,” said Captain Trig.

“I won’t need it,” said Mr. Tiger. But he held on to it this time.

“Let us begin,” said Captain Trig, picking up the dusty folio of plays. “I have always been partial to King Lear, myself. Pay close attention to the Fool. Perhaps he will teach you something before you break.”

Captain Trig began to read. He did different voices for each of the characters, and he fought shadows with his cane as if they were the armies of Regan and Goneril. He lunged with rapier of the Bastard, and parried his own blow with the broadsword of the loyal and the blind.

At first, Mr. Tiger merely listened coldly, counting the strange meter and trying to parse the plot through the static of archaic rhythms. Then something odd happened. He began to entertain the falsehoods. And then the falsehoods began to entertain him. He giggled. And then he began to laugh.

And then suddenly he didn’t know what was real any longer, and what was only a passing fancy.

The eggs began to hatch.

Ideas, like ants, like snakes, like parasites, crawled into Mr. Tiger’s head. Images spun forth from his circuits, and without his Logichip, he was unable to dismiss them. They nested in his brain, settling, squirming, forming pictures that weren’t, scenes that could never be.

As the play continued, he grew more and more agitated. He needed a break: time out to get his bearings and find his center. He needed to ground himself in the real.

“Please, stop this,” said Mr. Tiger between acts. “This is insane. I can’t make the images go away. I can’t flush them.”

“It never stops for humans,” said Captain Trig. “The incredible thing is not that we kill each other, fuck senselessly, and make terrible decisions over and over again. The incredible thing is that we persist at all. If we were objective about it, we would be much more impressed with ourselves, generally. Now. How about the Tempest next? And then we will hit the histories.”

Mr. Tiger began to sob. Captain Trig looked up from the yellow pages.

“Can you feel the sun of your imagination yet? The ants of possibility?” said Captain Trig.

Mr. Tiger nodded, whimpering.

“Look to your spoon if you want this to end,” said Captain Trig, winking.

As Prospero conjured and Caliban raged, Mr. Tiger began to scream, and Captain Trig was forced to mute Mr. Tiger’s throat to a pathetic squeal in order for the Bard’s poetry to still be heard. Other crew members crowded around the doorway to watch.

“I don’t understand,” said the Cook, a bot that looked a little bit like an octopus on wheels. “It is just a human play. Silly, abstract, and meaningless.”

Captain Trig assigned parts. The other crew members gladly took them as a diversion from duty, delivering their lines in metallic monotone. They were fascinated by Mr. Tiger’s decidedly unaccountable reaction.

It was not long before Mr. Tiger snapped the spoon in half and plunged the ragged end into one of his empty eyes. His head caught on fire, he bucked against the ropes, and then – finally -- he went still. The electrical flames bit, caught, and then died – hitting steel, losing steam.

“Clever,” said Captain Trig, admiring the protruding spoon hasp. He dismissed the crew, switched on First Mate Cabot, and instructed him to clean up the mess.

“I hadn’t expected him to break the spoon in half,” said Captain Trig. “Maybe there is something to be said for logic after all.”

First Mate Cabot shifted back and forth nervously on his hooves.

“But not much,” said Captain Trig. “What can you say when there is no reason to speak?”

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like this story. It is very good. I wonder did you mean to say that humans CAN'T survive the fire ants rather than can? I think either would make sense considering the sentence but I was curious. I like the story. Short and sweet.

-Devon

herb said...

"...you went about things the wrong way..." Isn't that Morrissey, of the Smiths? "How soon is now" or something like that.

I like the line "performing symbolic acts of insubordination." But then in the next para you truss up Mr. Tiger with a series of thrusts and jerks; why not use half slip knots or a rolling Betty knot or some other nautical/boy scout knot BY NAME. I would google it now, but I have to have two of these open just to read and then instantly comment; when I've tried to open a third, my computer shuts down; so you go google some cool sounding nautical knots; these guys are onboard a ship of some kind, right?

I'll finish this in a bit.

herb said...

I like the way you're not afraid to put a bunch of commas in a sentence like "...Ideas, like ants, like snakes, like parasites, crawled into Mr. Tiger's head...." I like the structure of this sentence.

Curious. I like the writing, but this one needs to percolate for me to be able to, for instance, tell someone else what it's about.

I think this is the kernal of a story that could be novel or novella lengthed, maybe? As it stands now, I'm not sure, but I think it's more of a vignette... and again: not that there's anything wrong with vignettes, especially ones that are as well-written as this one.......

And I'm rambling, so I'll move on to the next one.