4. Speaking a Dead Language
The world is constantly fixated on the future, but there are still fragments of the past hidden in plain sight, if you know where to look for them. Alec Mansen is one of those fragments.
His name is not actually Alec Mansen. It is Bionically Improved Human Series A Operating System 130.0, or A130 for short. But he has long since learned that the people of Settlement 209 do not take kindly to those who have serial numbers rather than proper names. His first real owner, Pythagoras Mansen, named him Alec, and he keeps that name loyally as if he is fooling the people around him. But he can’t fool himself. He is well aware that everyone knows what he is.
Pythagoras put him to work as a supervisor at Pristine Labs. Since then, Alec has never stopped working. He was passed down to Pythagoras’s son Metus, and eventually to Metus’s son Felix. He does not particularly mind the fact that he has become a family heirloom. He finds it interesting to watch the world pass by him as he stands at his usual post, observing while the generations slip past and run together. He used to babysit Felix when the boy was small; he helped his current master with arithmetic homework and attended his school graduation ceremonies. Now Felix is a grown man and a wealthy genitech, and Alec was there during every advance in his career.
That’s also why Alec blames himself for the fact that Felix has a fascination with “special” imps. If Felix hadn’t grown up with a funny old imp for a first playmate, then he never would have found himself drawn to the world of controlled science gone awry. It wasn’t so bad when he was only doing research. Alec didn’t approve of it, but it was relatively harmless. And then one day Felix came home with a petite young girl in tow.
“Sir, who is this?”
“Alec, I’d like you to meet Lai. She’s new.”
“Yes, she’s a brand new imp. I bought her for cheap.”
“An imp! But sir, she is so…”
“Small? Yeah, I know. There was a slight…problem with her while she was being made. She’s as smart as anything, though.”
The new girl, Lai, didn’t seem to be entirely aware that they were talking about her. She was only able to smile vaguely and offer up standard greetings. All newborn imps were like that when they first came into the world; it wasn’t until a few days later that their brains adjusted and they began to develop personalities. Alec knew all this, and he knew that soon enough Lai wouldn’t be so dazed and vacant…
…but even now, he doesn’t think that it was a good idea for Felix to bring her home in the first place. Felix is a genitech, and he should be studying successful imps in order to improve society’s model of efficiency, not dabbling in the purchase of unusual specimens as if they are fine antiques. Besides, Alec has always suspected that Lai is defected in a way other than size. She can behave very…oddly at times. In the ten years since he first met her, she has never been serious-minded about her work as a Land and Air Inspector, preferring instead to immerse herself in fictitious stories and music and leisure activities. As a supervisor of Pristine Labs, he wishes that she would cease with these childish follies.
He supposes that if anything good has come out of Felix’s penchant for “unusual” imps, it is the two imps he acquired called Cade and Ema. Alec has always been fond of Ema, possibly because she has the sort of personality that makes it impossible for people not to like her, or because she was specifically designed to be charming and sociable. But Alec thinks it is more than that. It takes a lot to make him respect someone, and he certainly respects Ema. From the very start, he has regarded her as someone of good judgment and commendable character.
Besides, he is not a human or even an imp, so shallow visual tricks have no effect on him.
Alec has a damaged left eye. Its movements are delayed, he cannot see out of it very well, and most of the skin around it is gone for good. But there is no blood or bone revealed by the nonexistent flesh, only gleaming silver metal, marred by scratches and pockmarks that are only just beginning to wear smooth with time. The eye is the only imperfection in his otherwise flawless, symmetrical face, but it is enough to damn him for all time. That broken eye is perpetually announcing to the world what he is. He hears various names for his condition carried on the lips of the employees in Pristine Labs, all of them unsavory: android, robot, machine…mutineer. He has been labeled for everyone to see.
There is a disconnect between him and the humans and imps, especially in communication. His inflections are unnatural, and words become somehow distorted in his mouth. His self-imposed isolation over the decades has left him with a minimal grasp of the newer slang and terms of speech. But more than that, he makes sure that every word he says has meaning. His voice sinks among idle chatter like a stone in an algae-filled pond. He does not know how long he will live compared to the other imps, but he suspects that his situation will persist for centuries, and all he’ll be able to do is continue with his routine and try not to draw too much attention to himself.
The world is rapidly become a machine based on a model of efficiency. Alec favors this system and tries his best to usher it along, but deep down he knows that he has no part in it. After all, in order for a device to be efficient, every gear and mechanism must be the correct size and shape. Every piece must do its job, unaffected by chinks or dents, which would slow everything down. That is why he disapproves of Felix’s fascination with defected imps – as a genitech, Felix is an engineer of the newly efficient world. He should be oiling the cogs to make everything run more smoothly, not wasting his time on defected imps, the ill-fitting gears of this relatively new system.
Alec is a defect, and he hates himself for it. He fully endorses schedules and routines and directives to be completed as quickly and as perfectly as possible, all while knowing that he is a loose end that should have been cut long ago.