Across the street, excavators dug up large swathes of grass.
“They’re building a new complex over there,” her neighbour said. “I heard the farmer who owned that land went off to live the life of a millionaire.”
Her neighbour babbled on about yachts and sea voyages and Alternate Girl stood there staring while the machines went about their business of churning up grass and soil. She wondered what it would be like to be crushed under those hungry wheels, and she flinched at her own imagination.
“A pity,” her neighbour said. “I sure will miss the view.”
Alternate Girl murmured something vague in reply, and went back to tending her flowers.
She wondered if the farmer was happier now that he had his millions. Would wealth and sea voyages make up for severed ties and the erasure of generations of familial history?
She pulled out a stray weed, and scattered coffee grounds to keep the cats from digging up her crocus bulbs.
She shook her head and headed back indoors. She’d only known two kinds of lives, and in neither of them had she been a millionaire.
* * *
Most expatriates pursue a model life. This makes them a desired member in their adopted society. They appear to assimilate quickly, adapting without visible complications to the customs of the country in which they reside.
On the surface, they may appear contented, well-adjusted, and happy. However, studies reveal an underlying sorrow that often manifests itself in dreams. In dreams, the expatriate experiences no ambivalent feelings. There is only a strong sense of loss. It isn’t uncommon for expats to wake up crying.
—On Expatriate Behaviour, Mackay and Lindon—
* * *
In her dreams, Alternate Girl fled from her life as an expat. She sprouted wings and let the wind take her back to the gates of her hometown.
Even in the dreamscape, she could smell the exhaust from passing jeepneys. She could taste the metal dust in the air. The moon shone on the gentle curve of asphalt, cutting through dusty thoroughfares, creating long dark shadows on the pavement. Metal tenements jutted up from the land, pointing like fingers at the night sky.
By day, a constant stream of drones strove to keep those buildings together. Every bit of scrap metal, every piece of residual wiring was used to keep the landscape of steel and concrete from breaking to pieces. For all its frailty, for all its seeming squalor, there was something dear and familiar about the way the streets met and turned into each other.
Even if her life was filled with the cosiness of the here and now, she could not shake off the longing that thrummed through her dreams in the same way that the thrum of the equilibrium machine pulsed through this landscape.
Towering above the tenements was the Remembrance Monument. Made of compressed bits and parts, it contained all the memories of those gone before. Each year, the monument reached higher and higher until its apex was lost in the covering of clouds. When she was younger, she’d often imagined she could hear the voices of the gone-before.
Above the pulse of the Equilibrium Machine, above the gentle susurrus of faded ghosts, she heard a cry. High and shrill, it emitted a hopelessness Alternate Girl remembered feeling.
It was the same cry that pulled her out of her dreams and back into the present. She turned on her side, pressed her ear against her pillow and stared into the darkness.
This is my home now, she told herself. I am happy as I am. We are happy as we are.
Never mind her personal griefs. Never mind her longing for that lost landscape.
* * *
Would you like a chance to revisit the past or to visit the future? Optimum Labs offers you the chance to take the leap in time. Our company is 100% customer satisfaction guaranteed. Unlike the scams out there, Optimum Labs offers you the real thing.
Alternate Girl stared at the screen. Each day the spam mail showed up without fail. Same time stamps, same recipient name, all from anonymous senders.
Who sends this mail? she wondered. And did everyone in her neighbourhood receive the same mail with the same time stamps every day? If she had the courage to reply, would she receive an answer from all the anonymous senders? Her hand hovered over the delete key.
If you sent garbage to the landfill, it got buried underground, but what about garbage in the ether? Did it float around silently on the airwaves? Would all the spam and the deleted mail come back to haunt her in the form of ether pollution or some such specialised name?
While she sat there, the speakers gave off a faint ping. She clicked and waited as the new message filled her screen.
Happy Birthday, Alternate Girl! Today is a milestone for all of us. You have successfully completed one hundred weeks of expatriate life. In recognition of your hard work, a reward has been issued to you at the designated station. Report in as soon as you can and don’t forget to register at our renewed website. Greetings from Memomach@metaltown.com
Alternate Girl squeezed her eyes shut. She opened them and stared once more at the message on her screen.
Could it be what she had been waiting for all this time, or was Mechanic finally calling her home?
* * *
Most expatriates express mixed feelings regarding their origin. Many of them harbour a secret fear of losing touch with the collective memory. While they seem content with their new lives, repatriation is a common subject of conversation. For the expatriate, to return raises a complex response.
One of the subjects of this study worded it this way: “Return is something I fantasise about and desire. But at the same time, it is something I am afraid of.”
Choosing to build a new life in an unfamiliar land represents a leaving behind of the collective, and while there may still be remnants of a shared life, the expatriate faces uncertainty. What if he or she has lost the ability to pick up the threads of their old life?
—On Expatriate Behaviour, Mackay and Lindon—
* * *
Her first recollection was of Father’s eyes shining down at her from his great height. Light filtered in through drawn shades and she could see an outline of buildings from where she lay. It seemed as if there were a thousand busy bees buzzing inside her skull. Beside her, someone moaned. She shivered and echoed the sound.
“There, there,” Father said. “No need to be frightened.”
“Father,” he said pointing to himself. “Metal Town.” He gestured to something beyond her vision.
She repeated the words after him, and listened as he murmured sounds of approval.
“You’re progressing very well,” he said. “Soon, I’ll take you to the Mechanic.”
He shuffled away, out of her line of sight. She heard a thump and another moan, and she called out anxiously.
“I’m here,” Father said. His voice was soothing and she drifted away into a kaleidoscope of screeching metal and the crescendo of another voice wailing out Father’s name.
When she woke, the curtains were drawn back. From where she was, she could see black metal struts and the carcasses of vehicles piled on top of one another.
From far away, came the hum of lasers and a low bass thrum that she later discovered was the Equilibrium Machine. A man bent over her; his face was shiny and round and she saw metal cogs where his ears should have been.
His fingers felt cold and hard on her skin.
“Just like one of them,” he whispered. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were one of them.”
His words made her uncomfortable, and when he took her hand she pulled it away.
“Don’t fight it,” he whispered. “Fighting only makes it worse.”
She felt something sharp and burning on her skin. Wet leaked out of her eyes. She couldn’t move.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s all part of the process.”
* * *
Staring at the message on her screen, she wondered if Mechanic considered this as yet another part of the process.
“Leaving is a part of the process,” Father had said.
“While we may long for return, we also know that having left we are already changed.”
She looked around at her cosy nest, stared at the brilliant blues and greens of her living room, at the paintings of sunflowers and butterflies, and she wondered whether she would be able to go back and surrender to a life spent waiting for harvest.
Outside, the digging machines had fallen silent. She looked up at the clock. It was half past twelve and the men who drove them were probably off to lunch.
* * *
Extract from Notes on the creation of Alternate Girl: 2001 hours
Original model expired at 2000 hours.
Harvested from prototype AG 119-2:
Pulsebeat, bodyframe, eyes, memory, emo chip
Applied Mechanic’s new plastics to bodyframe. Installed chip, memory, pulsebeat, eyes. Molding of face follows, arms, legs, and other parts. Assembly proceeded as planned. Pliables applied.
Awareness installed. Test successful.
Emo chip installed. Test successful.
Memory chip activated. Trace and recall function activated. Registration complete.
* * *
There was a party when she passed the 4000-hour mark. Father beamed, and Mechanic looked happy and hopeful. Metal Town’s citizens came in reply to Mechanic’s summons. Of these, she loved most the ones who rolled in on lopsided wheels and who smiled and chirped code at her.
When she tried to chirp back, they encircled her and projected their enthusiasm in signals and bleeps that she couldn’t put into proper words.
“You are one of us,” the chirpers said. And she felt welcomed and included.
Father beamed at the compliments he received.
“Yes, I am proud of her,” he said. “Our first success,” Mechanic said. Alternate Girl wondered at his words. Had there been others then? If she was the first success, where were the ones that had failed?
The chirpers moved away and she was surrounded by tall and gangly ones who took her hands in theirs. They ran their fingers up and down her arms, peered into her eyes and asked her questions about her training. Mechanic beamed and looked on. He sipped oil from a can he held in his hand and bowed his head and gestured towards her.
Where were the words to tell a powerful being that you had no wish to be looked upon and admired as if you were a foreign object placed on display?
Foreign. It struck her then. She lifted her hands, marvelling at the elasticity of her flesh. Of course, she was foreign.
* * *
Notes on progression:
AG 119-2 perfectly adjusted. All systems normal. Social skills optimal. Sequence failures, nil.
* * *
In the weeks that followed, she passed through various tests.
A model housewife, she learnt, was dedicated to maintaining a perfect home and garden. She perused hundreds of pages of magazines culled from God knew where. Housewives by the hundreds, all extolling the virtues of various cleaning products, household goods, cooking sauces, oils, liniments, lotions, facial creams, garden products and intimate apparel. The array of faces and products dazzled her.
“Will there be others like me?” she asked Father.
“If all goes well,” he replied.
“What about you?” she asked.
“When the time comes, the old must give way to the new.”
She waited for him to continue. Wanting to know more, wanting to understand what he meant by his words.
“You’re not old,” she said.
He touched her cheek and shook his head.
“I shall tell you more soon,” he said.
These hours spent with Father were precious to her. He was patient with her attempts to put to practice the things she had learnt.
“You must learn control,” he said. “You are far stronger than others think you are, but control will serve you better where you are going, AG.”
* * *
“When they take me away,” Father said, “I want you to remember that it’s part of the process we all go through.”
“Why would they take you away?” she asked.
“In the order of things, old models must make way for the new,” Father said. “But even if I go, my pride and joy live on in you, AG. Eight thousand hours old and going strong. You are our future.”
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’ll be there,” Father said.
She looked to where his finger pointed and saw the Remembrance Monument.
“When the time comes, I will be harvested as others have been before me. My memories will become part of the monument. There are those who say that when the end of time comes, we will unfold our bodies, regain our memories and find ourselves changed into something more than machine.”
“Will I be harvested, too?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” He cupped her face in his hands. “You are our first success. We don’t even know what you’ll be like when you’re as old as we are.”
“Can I have your memories?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. Outside, Mechanic’s men tramped through the streets of Metal Town. Someone screamed.
Harvest, the word whispered through Alternate Girl’s circuits.
Father flinched, closed his eyes and bowed his head.
“Will it hurt?” Alternate Girl asked.
“I don’t know,” Father replied.
But she knew he was lying. She wondered what happened at Harvest and whether it was indeed a natural thing as Father had said. She visited the Remembrance Monument, and tried to make sense of it all. Its cold walls gave back a reflection of her face—so unlike the faces of her fellow citizens.
She thought of a life without Father, and there were no words for the grief she felt.
“Take me then,” she said to the Monument. “If you must take Father, then you must take me, too.
But the monument stayed silent, and no matter how hard she listened, there were no messages or codes from the beyond.
* * *
After that, she grew more conscious of how the machine men made their daily trek to the walled buildings. They went in the same as they came out. The drones monitored the streets, gathering up residue and scrap metal. It seemed to her that each one had a duty to perform, a routine task to follow.
Mechanic had found no routine for her yet.
“Learn all you can,” he had said on one of his visits. “You will be our first ambassador. The model housewife, a perfect expatriate. They will love us because of you. Perhaps they will finally remember us and we will be reconciled with the original makers.”
“What about Father?” Alternate Girl asked.
“He does his part,” Mechanic said. “You must do yours.”
She didn’t like the uncertainty of his answer, but she had learnt not to say so. Instead, she nodded and listened and took in the knowledge he fed to her.
There must be a way out, she thought.
It was the first time she thought of escape.
* * *
The Expatriate Choice as subject of this study reveals the following common causes for expatriation:
Economic. Some expatriates choose to live or work in a different country or society for the sake of material gain.
Social. Some expatriates choose to live or work in a different country or society because they see this as a means of increasing their stature in society. Others choose exile for the sake of love.
Political. Some expatriates embrace voluntary exile as a means of protest against the ruling body of their home country.
—Observations of Expatriate Behaviour, Mackay and Lindon—
* * *
Alternate Girl found the rift in the barrier a week after Mechanic’s visit. It was late at night, and she had chosen to take one of the roads leading south. She ventured further and further away from the heart of Metal Town. The moon cast its light on the road before her and she could see the long shadow of herself stretching out and mingling with the waving shapes of wild grass and brush.
She was deep in thought when the sound of wheels swishing on asphalt caught her attention. She saw a flash of light, and then she was at a barred gate. Through the bars, she could see the outline of cars and buses flowing in a rush away from her. She stared at this vision of vibrant and full-bodied creatures, and she understood that they were relatives of the disembowelled who lay stranded in the many garages around Metal Town.
On her way home, she was conscious of the spy eye stationed atop the Remembrance Monument and, passing close to it, she heard a faint murmur that sounded like voices whispering through the scaffolds of the Monument’s steel ports.
The recollection of screams played back in her memory and she stopped. One day they would take her, too. She’d be joined to the Monument regardless of whether she desired it or not.
Across the street, she saw the Mechanic. Moonlight glinted off the chrome of his head, and he gave a slight nod when he saw her. She could hear him muttering to himself as he crossed to where the tin houses of the Numbered Men leant against each other like pale reflections of their owners.
Alternate Girl wished she had the courage to run up to Mechanic.
“Please,” she would say. “Please spare Father.”
But she already knew his answer.
“Our duty is to the original creators of the monument,” he’d told her once. “It is our task to harvest the bodies and to store the memories of the gone-before. It is all for the greater good, Alternate Girl. We all have our duties to perform. Your father understands his place in all of these.”
* * *
Memory, its storage and the passing on of it, is essential to the inhabitants of Metal Town. What function does the Remembrance Monument have, if not to store the memories of the gone-before? At the heart of Harvest is the preservation of the spirit that is Metal Town.
—excerpt from A Celebration of Memory by Sitio Mechanics—
* * *
Father was silent. He dragged his feet when he walked and complained about his joints. She tried to cheer him up, but all the while her mind circled around the question of escape.
“They’ll be coming for me soon,” Father said. His speech slurred and he sat down and leant his head against the back of the chair.
“Mechanic wants to create a partner for you,” he whispered. “He wants someone created in your image. An alternate man designed to fit the perfect housewife.”
“Father,” she knelt down beside him. “If I told you we could get out and not have to come back, what would you say?”
“Don’t you think anyone has tried that before? Why do you think the monument keeps growing, AG? Our masters created us to stay in Metal Town, but there were always those who tried to escape. Everyone comes back to Metal Town, even those who leave with the Mechanic’s blessing.”
“But there’s a road out of here,” Alternate Girl insisted. “If we leave, at least we’ll have a choice.”
“They’ll always catch you,” he whispered. “Metal Town allows no exemptions, AG. Right now, you are one of a kind, but what’s been made before can be made again.”
He closed his eyes and leant back in his chair. She could hear the slow whirr of his heart, and she felt more frightened than she had ever been.
“Why did you make me this way?” she asked. “You could have made me a drone, if this is all the life I’m meant to have.”
“Do you think a drone’s life is of less value than yours?” Father asked. “Memory and hope is all that lies between you and the life of a Numbered Man. We come home when our time is at end. To be joined to the original dream of our creators is a privilege, not a curse.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, Father. I didn’t mean for it to sound that way. But please, please, won’t you at least try? Without you, I might just as well be a Numbered Man.”
“Escape is never without price,” Father said.
But she only heard the capitulation in his voice.
* * *
Copy of Memo as lifted from Mechanic’s desk:
Received: 23.11, Remembrance Monday
Re: circular number: 792-A-1B3Rae
Release Request: Alternate Girl
Status: Under consideration
* * *
They left Metal Town early in the morning. In the quiet dark, the thrum of the Equilibrium Machine was magnified a hundred times. Avoiding the street lamps, they kept to the shadows as best they could.
“I’ll slow you down,” Father had said.
But she wouldn’t leave him behind. And so they crept along behind the piles of junk and strip metal.
Their feet slipped on smooth steel and made clunky sounds in the silence. They waited, but when no-one came, they slid on forwards until they reached a surface less finished than the one they’d left behind.
“We’re almost there,” she whispered.
She could hear his joints creak in the silence, and she reached out a hand to help him.
“I’m fine,” he said.
And then they were out in the open. Beyond them, the road opened up and curled southwards to where the rift in the barrier had expanded.
The rising sun cast a golden glow over Father’s face, and it seemed as if he were made of light.
They were headed towards the rift when from behind came the sound of pursuit. The roar of the Mechanic and the clunk of boots on the hard surface of the road.
They raced down the blacktop as the sun made its journey to the apex. Alternate Girl ran, propelling Father onwards with a fresh surge of energy. The earth shook, and Alternate Girl slipped and lost her footing.
“Get up,” Father’s voice whispered in her ear.
“Run,” Alternate Girl gasped. “I’ll slow them down.”
“I’m not letting them take you,” Father said.
The Equilibrium Machine shrieked, and Alternate Girl cried out, as Mechanic loomed before them.
* * *
“What did you think to gain?” Mechanic asked.
What did I hope for? Alternate Girl wondered.
“Let her go,” Father said. “I will do as is required of me. Only let her go.”
“Do you think you still have the power to intervene?” Mechanic asked. He kept his gaze locked on Alternate Girl.
“No,” Father said. “I realise there is no forgiveness for what I chose to do. Still…”
Mechanic raised his right hand in a silencing gesture.
“Forgiveness is not up to you to decide,” he said. “Whatever follows lies in the hands of this girl you have created. She is ready to leave this place, and I am sure she will be an asset to the Expatriate Programme.”
* * *
Building bridges and abolishing barriers is central to the Expatriate Programme. Ignorance leads to misconceptions and stereotypes, hence the lumping together of certain groups of expatriates. It is hoped that the Expatriate Programme will give rise to mutual understanding and acceptance of each other’s differences.
Participants to the Expatriate Programme are given the freedom to appropriate what they deem necessary in order to achieve the central goal of total integration.
—Understanding the Expatriate Programme, Mackay and Hill—
* * *
She’d found her partner on the other side of the gate. It had seemed simple enough to follow him home and to allow herself to be embraced and joined to him. That union made it possible for her to slip seamlessly into the pattern of his everyday life.
All the knowledge fed into her came to good use, and their lives entwined as if by rote. She became the housewife, and he, her model mate.
How he spent his days was a mystery to her. She imagined him spending all day behind a desk in an office somewhere. She thought of him lost in a maze of paperwork, one of the hundreds of thousands of Numbered Men wearing the same coloured shirt, the same suit from the same local haberdashery, the same haircut from some local barber, the same coat, the same tie. She imagined all of them, working together towards the same goal.
How many numbers have you added up today? That’s how Alternate Girl imagined their conversations went. How many more numbers before you meet your quota?
* * *
“If I do as you wish, will you return Father to me?” she asked Mechanic.
“Already, his body is good for nothing but the harvest,” Mechanic said. “But I can give you the essence of him. How you choose to restore him lies within your grasp.”
She turned the chip over in her hand. For all that it seemed small, it contained the entirety of Father’s memories as well as the history of their lives.
“A simple matter to appropriate a body,” Mechanic’s words whispered in her head. “You won’t even need to tell him what you’re doing. Let him fall away into an eternal dream, so Father may return.”
“Won’t he feel pain?” She asked.
“A relative thing,” he said. “Such things are unimportant and the outcome relies on your ability to do what must be done. You have done well, AG. Allowing you to regain Father is a small reward.”
The chip felt hard and hot in her hand. She’d made sacrifices working towards this goal, subjugated her will in order to build a life beyond the shadows of the Remembrance Monument. Already, she couldn’t remember the name of this man whom she’d shared a bed with for one hundred weeks.
Should she feel regret or remorse for what she was about to do?
She had no answer to that question. All she could think of was Mechanic’s admonition, she could only hear his voice telling her that she was free to do as she chose. If she chose to erase her partner’s life for the sake of regaining Father, it wouldn’t matter if she could no longer return to Metal Town.
She listened to her partner’s key turning in the front door, listened to the sound of his footstep in the hall, listened for the familiar creak of his joints, and turned to welcome him home.