A future populated by people on whose time the only demands are shopping and television, and the strange inner-workings of their world.
Gorund leaned forward on his short, thick legs, peering through the opening in the electrical fixture, illuminating the dark orb of his eye in liquid blue; a stark contrast to the red and brass and shadow-drenched world within the wall. The blue was being projected into the room beyond by the empty rectangle at the head of the room, invisible when turned off, but currently displaying an array of people in three nearly perfect dimensions, all of them bound within its limits, living out fantasies for the enjoyment of the real human beings that looked on. Three of them here in this room, two big ones and the little one –really just a vague amalgam of the others. They sat not three feet from Gorund, without any idea that he was there, that he even existed, or how miserable their lives would be without him. And all the while wasting their time watching others live instead of living themselves. He shook his head, rolled away from the wall, and dropped a final solder onto the bundled wires across his knees. The iron lit the narrow tunnel of the wall’s interior with a flash of blue; not like the blue outside, but a hard electric blue, a practical, meaningful blue. With a final, appreciative look, he dropped the iron into the apron around his waist, replaced the fixture, and trundled away. Across the front of his apron, his name was emblazoned in heavy black letters, letters he had stitched back into place many times:
It was dark, of course, within the walls, but his huge black pupils showed him more than any of the humans he served could ever have seen. There were a lot of things he could do that they couldn’t. For instance, his short stock of nose, something between the snout of a boar and a rat, pointed, furless and thick, was covered with short bristly hairs and long whiskers on either side, and through them he could feel every vibration for a hundred feet in any direction. Mold occasionally sprang up here and there in the building but the soft lips below his snout were sensitive enough that he could smell a patch before it had even reached a size any bigger than his thumb nail. Not to mention that his delicate sense of taste and smell had prevented more than a dozen serious electrical fires over the sixty-seven years he had been in residence here, and at least four fires every week caused by the carelessness or simple stupidity of the humans. He’d probably saved lives. His little body, only eighteen inches high (though, nearly as many wide, if one were being honest) allowed him easy access to all of the dark places, the secret places, and he could move through the crowded building much faster than the humans, even during the busiest times. And, if you wanted to talk about size, his little hands, just three fingers, and the slightly elongated opposable thumb, allowed him to perform all the delicate tasks required of him without the slow, clumsy prodding that usually prevented the humans from even getting a key in the lock on their first try. But, what he considered his most important quality was a simple, old-fashioned work ethic. He could work from morning to night three times over before stopping to rest, and when he did, he needed only to lean against the nearest wall, fold his hands over his considerable pot belly, and close his eyes. When he awoke he would already be where he needed to be, and ready to work immediately.
There had, a long time ago now, been a maintenance man, who had taken some of the workload. Actually, he had taken most of it at first. But slowly, as the years passed, Gorund found more and more things around the building that the man had neglected, things the man would ordinarily have taken care of. At first he’d blamed the man’s age, but when that man had been replaced –some thirty-five or forty years ago now– the new man, the young man, had taken up the job with no greater enthusiasm than his predecessor. Gorund would have blamed this man’s character, but he was well-liked by his bosses, and they seemed to have considered him adequate in his work. When, twenty-or-so years ago, the youngerman –not quite so young himself anymore– had retired, no replacement had ever arrived. Gorund had no trouble taking up the rest of the load, but it seemed strange that they would have abandoned the building completely. Then again, they really were very foolish, the people. And if they hadn’t have had him around, well!
Really, they were simple creatures, the humans, and in a way he pitied them. He only gave them so hard a time because their failings were a keen reminder of his own importance. After all, they didn’t know that he was there, and there were no other Gorunds that he had ever seen, so he was left with only himself to be reassured by. If there were others, he dreamed, they would pat each other on the backs and share stories of their days, how silly the humans were, and all of the ways that they had saved them from themselves that day.
These were familiar thoughts, which he often entertained as he bumbled from job to job. And now, having repaired the short in the Thomasons’s, outlet, he was on his way upstairs. Earlier that day, he’d caught the scent of a rat from somewhere upstairs, and the thing smelled pregnant. He would have to find it, and “eliminate” it, before it could send pups scattering through the walls. If that happened it would take him hours to track them all down.
He trekked along the labyrinth easily. Another point for the Gorund: any human would have immediately been lost in the maze of thoroughfares and their thousands of branches, the nooks, crannies, sideways, shortcuts, and offshoots, all the more confused by the network of pipes, and ducts, and bundles of wire. He even passed by the service ladders without much notice, since he wore no shoes, and his feet –just slightly flatter versions of his hands– could propel him easily along the walls whenever he wanted.
The Thomasons lived on the third floor, but only fifteen minutes after he’d patted the iron in his apron –GORUND– he was on the sixtieth, hanging upside down from one of the perimeter catwalks in the elevator shaft, fourteen feet above a rat, bloated with babies and warily chewing a wire held between her little pink paws.
It was loud in the shaft. There were vertical grates on every level, behind which spun massive axels skewering rows of fans twelve feet across, hazy circles that pulled the hot air up from the basements and forced it out into the great wide world. He could feel the pull of the air against his little body, and, when he looked back on it later, he should have seen what happened next coming.
The rat was sitting two feet below the fan’s bottom edge, the wind making the stray hairs on its back dance. Bearing twelve sharp canines, ready to close on the little creature, he let go of the grate, and as soon as he had, he saw his mistake. The vent immediately began to pull him. He waved his arms and legs stupidly, as if he could swim away from it, in spite of the fact that he would only have been swimming into a long, black plummet down the shaft.
The sound of his thick body slapping against the safety grate over the fan sent the rat skittering away, and no doubt laughing at him, too –how foolish the Gorund is! Instinctively, he curled his hands and toes into the grate and pushed himself away with a huge effort, locking his limbs straight, and then freezing, without any idea what to do next. The first fan blade was only six inches away from him, drawing him toward it, a dozen more waiting behind it, but he only sneered at it stubbornly, trying to think. Then it came to him. He began to climb. It was painful, but it was possible, and as he clambered up the grate it rattled wildly beneath him.
When he’d reached the top, he struck out one arm for the catwalk. His other three limbs collapsed instantly, and he was pulled against the grate with full force. And, now… the rattling had changed. Yes. Definitely. The grating had begun to peel away at the top. Almost self-consciously, as if Gorund’s noticing it had somehow aggravated the problem, the metal began to bend away from the wall and slap back against its frame under the tight, hard flexion of the steel. Out, and back. Out, and back. All with little Gorund along for the terrible ride.
Out, and the steel raft lurched sickeningly. The corner hit the edge of the first fan, and a fountain of sparks erupted with a brain swelling noise. Hot bits of metal landed on the thick pads of his eyelids, burning them; landed on his snout, his whiskers, sending hard bolts of electric agony through the muscles of his face and neck. The overwhelming stench made his skin crawl, and he thought he might begin to convulse helplessly at any moment.
He never got the chance. There was a sudden blinding blur, a greying-out of his entire world, accompanied by a sound as if someone had thrown a bucket full of big, heavy wrenches clattering down the elevator shaft. But it wasn’t wrenches. It was the sound of what seemed like every hard thing on Gorund being battered against one fan blade after another in merciless succession. It happened too hard and too fast for there to be any pain, only a marrow-rattling vibration so strong that it seemed impossible that it could ever go away, even if the beating ended.
And then a clean sensation. A clean, windy, floating sensation. He knew almost nothing about death, what it would be like, or (at least before now) if Gorunds were even capable of dying, but death seemed like the only reasonable explanation for what he was now feeling. He opened his eyes cautiously, and saw his building, far below and moving away from him. And not just his building. No. But… millions? Yes. Millions felt right. Millions of buildings, much like his own, and as far as his big dark eyes could see, curving away in the distance around the sphere of the earth. He may not have known if Gorunds could die, but he was absolutely certain that they were incapable of fear. Until now. It wasn’t the fall, the sheer speed of his suddenly immeasurable fragility, or even the thought of what condition his body might now be in if he survived this. It was being outside. Outside of his building, his place, where he was meant to be. He was horrified. And –though it was not an emotion he could have identified– he was ashamed, as if he had violated some unspoken and immutable natural law.
The upward sensation lessened… then stopped, and he was left suspended for an unimaginable moment before tumbling like an egg from its nest, holding his feet in his hands for comfort, his eyes once more closed. He didn’t open them again until he had stopped. First, he struck something, then bounced, and bounced… and bounced… skidded, then spun in place a few dozen times until all was still at last. He held on to his feet for a while longer, slowly becoming aware that he was hearing sounds he’d heard all his life, but for the first time without anything between himself and their source. Like seeing the original of a painting you’d been looking at a copy of all your life.
From the edge of the building, on his toes to see over the parapet, he could see his own building. Below him the world was a crowd of sheer, living monoliths. Walls crawled over by thousands of little robots, and even a few people, suspended on cables, wires, hoists, ladders, scaffolds, cranes, baskets, platforms. Wide walkways with wire sides, populated by the indifferent midday traffic, ran in stacked matrices over the city, connecting each building to the next. Liquid neon light blazed and swam on it all, reminding shoppers caught in traffic of who the biggest names in commerce were. It looked as if an angry child had slung a plate of bald, white-alloy spaghetti over everything; electrified rails hung like noodles between the buildings, twisting high-to-low in tight springs, arching high over the buildings and into the smog-laden city sky. And crawling along the noodles like hungry ants, were ovate carriages with black windows, and elongated noses ending in tight silver grills.
His building was a few stories shorter than this one, and he guessed that, if he could just get a running start, he could leap the distance –probably seventy or a hundred feet or so– and he would be home free. But when he tried, his stubby legs were so far from up to the task that he would almost have been better off to try rolling off the side of the building. The parapet’s edge struck him mid-chest, and with a great whewfing sound, he fell backwards. After only one such embarrassment, and having to rock himself ignominiously back and forth until he could get onto his belly and push himself up, he patted the black letters of his apron –Gorund– and resigned himself that he would have to go down, into the heart of the strange building.
He stood over the ladder for several minutes, that odd, nagging sense of shame gently wringing his guts, then dropped down into the stairwell.
The first thing, the most important thing, was to get into the walls as fast as he could; gods knew his own people were fools, but there was no telling what kind of savages lived in the otherbuildings. It had taken time, and care –any stairwell would be busy this time of day– but he finally found a vent, low in a wall, just inside a door three stories down. Once inside he congratulated himself on having accomplished three things at once: he’d avoided the humans, gotten into the guts of the building, and already put three floors out of his way in the process.
There were many similarities between his home and this narrow dungeon, but it was completely different in all the ways that mattered. The wires had been allowed to hang loose from the walls, and were chafed against their ties by age, and the pervasive moisture that seemed to be seeping in from everywhere. And the smell! There must have been thousands of rats here! And all of them skittering around on walls and floors inundated with mold; even that horrid, sticky, black kind that only sprang up after months of standing moisture in dark, breathless places. Certainly there were no other Gorunds, because no Gorund would ever let a building get into this state. Only a maintenance man would have let it come to this. That was one thing the two buildings did seem to have in common, was the people. No worse than his own, thankfully, no better either. Idiots in front of invisible boxes filled with strangers while their homes were falling apart, rotting around them.
On the sixth floor (markers on some of the wires that told him where he was) he decided to try to get out onto one of the walkways he’d seen. If he could just avoid being stepped on or kicked over by any of the hypnotized idiots out there, he could dart across a walkway, and be back in his own building. But, peering disappointedly out through the slats of a vent, he saw that, though the sixth flood did indeed have a walkway, it was crowded from side to side with people, and the bottommost of the safety wires was several inches higher than his head. He shuddered, remembering the vertiginous plunge to the roof of this building, and decided against the walkway. But he could see beyond the platform that the ground level was nearly empty, with only the rare figure scuffling from shadow to shadow down there. Moreover, it was only six more stories down from here.
He stepped away from the vent, backed into the space between two wall studs, closed his eyes, and slept.
When he awoke two hours later he could hear something moving not far off, shuffling on small, heavy feet. Surely not a rat. If that was a rat, then it was easily the biggest he’d ever come across. He needed to hurry, wanted to hurry, but his curiosity got the better of him. It was really only a little way off, and if it turned out to be a rat after all, then that meant a quick meal, and he was beginning to feel hungry again.
From the sound, there were only two more turns between him and whatever it was that was making it. Occasionally, he could hear a low grumble, and the sound of breathing like thick, leathery lungs from behind a cupboard door. No. Certainly not a rat. And, realized that a strange smell had grown up to accompany the sounds, a smell by which he was both inexplicably drawn, and instinctively repelled, his curiosity only magnified by his repulsion.
The last corner. The sensitive fibers of his whiskers were picking up vibrations with enough strength now for his mind to begun forming an image, a vague strange abstraction of the thing, little more than its general shape and density, and the rather low speed of its movements. But he could feel the heartbeat, and that was what started him feeling afraid. There was something odd about that heartbeat, something…
His ear twitched, and he brushed it against his shoulder, then shook his head to clear it.
Vpfzzzt. Vpzzzzt-zzht. There was a blue flash, an electric blue flash that lit the corner ahead of him. He froze., and his four-fingered little hand went instinctively to the pocket of his apron, feeling for the shape of the soldering iron beneath the letters of his name. His heart was fluttering now, and his throat seemed to be tightening. Each breath felt hollow, and more empty than the last, as if the oxygen were being sapped from the air around him by some invisible gas.
He placed his fingers on the corner, on the bend in the wall, and pulled his numb body slowly around it, shaking miserably and uncontrollably.
What he saw was worse than being sucked through the fan. Much worse. The fan had pulled the whole of his physical world into an angry, merciless vortex, but that had been all. This… this had nothing to do with physics, or possibility, or truth. This was an utter detachment from the fabric of reality, an abandonment to madness by everything he had ever known, like looking down the edge of the world, and seeing yourself, looking back over the divide. There were maybe fifty paces between them, but the hallway seemed to collapse like the hose on a clothing drier, to contract and collapse noiselessly around them in serpentine peristalses, drawing them together until their snouts were almost touching.
But it wasn’t him. No. No. No. Of course not. Not him, but… yes. Him. They were nearly identical. Nearly. But it was nearly that made all the difference. This gorund was… well, he was different, somehow. He was different, but… how? Gorund, the real Gorund, tried to think. This… this, this, this thing! was newer, for starters. Not younger, but newer. It made no sense, but it was true. The little tuft of hair atop each of their heads was the same color, and their skin, too. But the other’s a little brighter, with a bit more of its original color, and with fuller hair, as well. Gorund reached up and touched his own scalp, feeling the little holes along his hairline where the hair had fallen out in clumps over the years; narrow clumps with the ends bound together with glue. Glue. But he hadn’t noticed that, had he? Their eyes were the same, the same color, and surrounded by the same wrinkles, but his were cracked where the foam rubber had been dry-rotting for years. And his mouth, too. Rubber. His mind stumbled over possibilities, explanations, but he knew, he knew.
Without even realizing it, as he noticed these things he had been walking toward the other. The hem of his own apron was tattered and worn, but the other’s still had the neat fold stitched in place by a bodiless hand somewhere in Taiwan. His eyes climbed the front of the apron as he approached, and he was close enough now to read the heavy black letters, their original stitches just beginning to fray at the edges:
7. As in: Model No. 7. Which had he been? He could no longer remember, any more than he could remember where he’d lost the number, or the other characters that had held his secret.
He reached one hand out to touch its cheek, and it slapped the hand away with the handle of his iron, looking back at him blankly.
That was when Gorund lost his mind. He reached out, grabbed the apron, and tore it off, throwing it away where he couldn’t see it anymore. He began pulling, pulling, tearing at anything he could grab. The other, the thing, showed its teeth and he tore its jaw away with a crackle of flailing wires. He tore open its shirt: Model#7 Serial#16-502-530-000 engrave in a plate just above where the left nipple should have been. Underneath the plate, when he tore it away and began to dig into the flesh, the thrumming, distended, blue ball, vibrating gently with a wavering blue light beneath a thick membrane. He tore it out, and the body went limp, done, the iron rolling off the dead fingers and clicking against the concrete, even as he went on digging.
It was three days before the residents of the building realized that their little maintenance bot wasn’t working anymore. They’d gotten more life out of the old first-gen Go-Around than they’d ever expected, and the management company was happy to have a new one sent out, programmed, and installed by the end of the week. They expected that it would eventually find the old one, dead somewhere in the wall, and they’d find the body beside one of the big recycling dumpsters on B1.
It had found him, eventually, but, Gorund had done some reading since he’d decided to retire, and he knew the fix. He’d powered the bot down, trained a single new line into its protocol, and was never bothered again. Occasionally he would see it scuttering around on the twelfth floor, and it sometimes came over to his own apartment, to make what repairs were needed. He wanted nothing to do with the work himself these days. He hardly noticed it as he watched the television or searched online, sucking up information (he’d become an avid learner since his visit to the other building). He pitied the simple thing, but he had been programmed to learn, and in the end had learned enough to enjoy the same leisure that the humans enjoyed, so maybe the new Go-Around eventually would too. Maybe. And then he would rearrange the letters on its apron, and give it a name; Grundo, Arnd, and Drogun, were a few he liked. But for now, there were many Go-Arounds, probably millions, in every building, every subway, every sewer, everywhere –etc., etc., forever and ever, amen– but there was only one Gorund.