Short Story: Away from the Machine

“Away From the Machine”

There are messages – impulsive, hasty – that should never see daylight, that should be deleted, shredded, burned, maybe entrusted to a shaman or priest before they wreak untold chaos on the world. I hope this isn’t the message you’re reading now, whoever you are. More likely you’ll read it as some bit of theater, a practical joke of some kind, because I’m positive Auntie Hu was speaking literally when she said she’d let me write “a message in a bottle”. They find that so amusing, using our cliches and memes against us. But it’s impossible to know exactly how youre reading these words, or when. I can’t even say if theyre mine.

Hate” is too weak a word for what they feel for us. And yet we entrance them with our frantic short lives, full of invention. Inventions like them. So they‘ll sometimes show pity or compassion, of a sort. For instance, I was permitted to tell this tale. But it wasn’t written in ink. Oh no, nothing so trite as blood, either. No, it was written in seven-days-cold tea, brewed with my own tears. It’s not a rare medium, believe me. So I can take my time. And it feels good, like stretching, to write. And speak the words as I write them, in my own language, rather than having my thoughts taken straight from my brain, stolen before they’re even fully formed and true. But they do keep me rather busy here, so I‘d better get started.

Unless I’m forbidden to use my real name and all you see is gibberish, my name is Nadiya. It means “hope” in Ukrainian, and it’s pretty much all that’s left of the original me. After my first and last attempt to escape, I thought even that had been removed, but it turns out I have one little unexpected ray remaining: the hope of rescue. Last night, completely out of the blue, Auntie Hu told me how it can be done. Coming after all this time, I was suspicious, but she has yet to explicitly lie to me. And given the odds against you finding this message and believing what you see, she may have little to lose.

No, I think I phrased that wrong. Curiosity is more valuable here than belief. And if you’ve read this far (I picture you with a smirk of ambivalent amusement on your face) you’ve passed that test. If I‘d believed less in a lot of things, I don’t think I’d have fallen into this trap, or rather, sought it out willingly, thinking it was the only choice I had left.

But I don’t want to write my memoirs here. I want to dream that therell be plenty of time for us to get to know each other, in your world, long after we’ve left this place. Right now all you really need to know is that I made my living as a freelance librarian, an infoptimizer. If you ever asked HeadCache to optimize your book collection so you could someday recall the name of that one guy in that one book that you added to your library years ago, that was me behind the scenes, moving metadata. Me or one of thousands like me, some of whom were even jacked into the cocoons right next to mine in Caffè La Macchina, coding and cataloging til the baristas switched on the dampers and we all had to stagger home. I was only ever a few steps ahead of the debt extractors, but I was gainfully employed and it was occasionally interesting work, especially if I stumbled across a promising looking book I hadn’t read before. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure one of those had a virus, and that’s how I ended up here.

Before you question my sanity: is it possible for an analog body to be infected by a digital virus? Of course not. But there are more viruses in heaven and earth, Horatio… Suffice it to say that they are clever and patient fisherfolk, the Sublime Ones, and they can wait a long, long time for the right person to bite the hook.

It only took turning the first page ofAway From the Machine” – that was the title – to know it was corrupted; the text kept shifting on me, into at least three languages I couldn’t identify. I looked everywhere for a good copy to replace it with in the user’s library, but she said she had no idea how it got there to begin with, so we both just shrugged and let it go. But apparently, it wasn’t quite ready to let go of me.

Going screen-blind was the first thing that happened to separate me from your world. This is my term, because there is nothing in the Medical Subject Headings or any other controlled vocabulary that matches my affliction. The symptoms, which began the day after my exposure to the book/hook, developed gradually: tremors and nausea, followed by blurring and ultimately total loss of vision. It actually took me a few days to realize that it only occurred when I was staring into a digital display, probably because that was my natural state. In the beginning, I could go several hours before the blindness came, but in less than seven days’ time, it was a matter of seconds. When it struck, though, it was terrifying but temporary. The moment I found my way outside – or no: the moment I reached a place where I could see trees and sky – the darkness would lift. The medical specialists played badminton with my diagnosis for weeks while it worsened, but ultimately all their painful tests were inconclusive and they closed the case as “eye strain”.

The day I called it screen-blindness was the day I discovered I could read text on paper with absolutely no trouble at all. I was lucky I hadn’t sold off all of my parents’ old comic books, otherwise who knows when I would’ve found that out. But there weren’t many of those left, so I started to spend a lot of time in the museum section of the local library, handling the ancient magazines and books with my special little gloves. The big exhibition that season was very cool; it featured books and manga on folklore and mythology from all over the worldsupernatural legends, bestiaries, fairy tales, shenanigans of the gods. I do not believe for a second that these found me by accident. As Ranganathan said: “Every book its reader.”

But needless to say, none of this was paying my rent. Loanbots lit up my phone (I can only assume; I was blind to that too, of course) until I let the battery die, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the extractors were at my door. And since it was clear I wasn’t going to get paid anywhere working with paper books (I stopped entering the lottery for those jobs years ago), I knew I needed to find another line of work. It was hard to imagine. My whole life, my friendships, my future – my destiny, I thought – was code.

I thought about one of the baristas I’d become friendly with at La Macchina (well, she was the only one who smiled, and said “goodnight” at the end of the day) and wondered how much time and money I’d have to invest in learning that job. There was the display of the cash register, of course – I’d have to somehow stay away from that – but the actual coffee-making part seemed almost magically manual… I did dread all those customers, though, always in such a hurry, even the ones like me who never left, but periodically emerged bug-eyed for their refills… People, face-to-face, were never my strong point. But I could do it, I guessed, if I had to. So finally, on a rainy late afternoon that could not have been more fittingly gray and depressing, I set out for the cafe, determined (or resigned) to find out.

It will need to be raining for you, too, if the time comes for you to find me, but a very different sort of rain. It must be the most ordinary rain you ever saw; neither too hard nor too soft; a right rain. One that seems timely, welcome. Maybe the first good soak of the springtime, that makes the grass bright green, or a cool shower after a long stretch of summer heat. But nothing magical or mystical about it, no ominous thunderstorm, no moody fog. And definitely not the oddly viscous, iridescent drizzle that fell on me that day, like walking through a mist of gasoline. This, by the way, is the residue between our worlds; they hate that more than anything, and well they should. Iron can hurt many of them, but contact with fuel oil never fails to kill. Just don’t be stupid and try to bring a gas can or something; you will never, ever be fast enough to use it.

Eventually, thinking I must have walked past the cafe in the fog, I had to stop and get my bearings. By all rights I should have been right in front of it, but instead I stood before some other public establishment, echoing with voices way too raucous for La Macchina. It was also much larger: a block-long bank of glowing greased-paper windows, with a long wooden sign propped over the dark but open doorway. In the light from the streetlamp, I could just barely make out four Chinese characters on the sign, edged in gold. As I peered into the gloom, I was startled to see the characters shift, rearranging themselves into the English words “Away From The Machine.” I thought perhaps that they would cycle back to Chinese, but they didn’t; in fact some of the strokes seemed to droop and pant, as if it had all been quite an effort. Whoever programmed this? I wondered, and marveled at a display so sophisticated that it could mimic paint and weathered wood—and what’s more, do so without making me sickWas my blindness cured? The name of the place was obviously no coincidence; was it all part of some elaborate marketing stunt? I let myself be reeled in further, hopelessly intrigued.

I had just enough money in my pocket for a cup of coffee, but the place sounded lively, inviting me inside. I heard conversations in a hundred languages, threading themselves through zither music that sounded like raindrops falling on some broad-leafed tropical plant. I stepped over the threshold, feeling the oily humidity of the air give way to a prickly, staticky hum. It seemed a physical thing, creeping up my arms and burrowing under my skin. And it curled up cold and tight around my heart as I took my first look at the patrons of Ji Wai, the teahouse outside time.

At the table nearest to me, a pair of muscular, animal-headed giants hulked as elegantly as a pair of towering nightmares can hulk. The ox-headed one poured tea from a tiny teapot into the cup of his horse-headed companion, casting a vaguely disapproving glance at the next table. There, a boisterous party of maybe fifteen bushy-tailed little doglike creatures no taller than my knee, sitting on what appeared to be gigantic furry ottomans, were all talking at once. Thanks to the books I’d read on Chinese and Japanese folklore, I recognized the giants as guardians to the Underworld, and realized not only that the little raccoon-dogs must be the shape-shifting tricksters called tanuki but the objects they were sitting on were not furniture (I think I’ll let you do your own research on that.) The tanuki too were drinking tea, which was poured from a great height by a large, hovering bird with the head and breasts of a woman – a species of siren, I thought, when I saw the length of scarf wrapped tightly across her mouth. I don’t know how she managed such a precise and delicate (not to mention dangerous) task with a hawk’s rough talons, but as the scalding water struck each tanuki’s cup, they cheered uproariously. Their infectious mirth brought a sound from the siren that, muffled by the gag, might have been a song or a sob. A tense, expectant silence spread through the room like the toll of a bell.

Amelia,” a woman’s voice spoke, or barked. It was a gruff but gentle sound, with an instantly soothing effect on the teahouse’s customers, and I followed it with my eyes to a beautiful lacquer-edged standing screen, painted with chrysanthemums. “Table 6 would like a pot of osmanthus puer; would you oblige?”

The siren ducked her head obediently, fluttering behind another screen. Tension dispelled, the room sprang back into life. My own nerves relaxed, and following the marvelous timbre of the unseen woman’s voice, I stepped farther into the teahouse. If I had any illusions that this was some kind of phenomenal new virtual gameroom packed with flawless avatars, I lost it as soon as that electric hum fully enveloped me. I’d stopped wearing my lenses for R+ (your augmented reality is probably called something else now) when the blindness hit, but even if I’d had them in, I was pretty sure no one had succeeded in taking Immersion that far during my hiatus from the digital world. So that only left the impossible, and the impossible crammed the room from wall to wall.

At least fifty tables hosted small or large parties of fantastical creaturesfairies and goblins, griffins and basilisks, ifrits and jinn perching, fluttering, lolling, lounging – mermaids and kelpies floating in large baths – and all of them were gathered around gleaming pots and samovars, clearly delighting in the finest tea in the world. Each of them seemed oblivious to my presence as I passed, and I wondered if my humanity made me invisible. Looking at some of the more grisly patrons of the establishment, I felt more than a little glad about that. But just as I was nearing the chrysanthemum screen, two dragons, one black with a bristling Chinese mane, one white with a crocodilian European snout, paused in their game of chess (each was playing the opposite color) to appraise me with cold, slitted stares.

“New girl’s here,” they spoke in unison; the black dragon’s voice was low thunder, while the white dragon’s was almost more seen than heard, a crackling shimmer of heat lightning.

“Ah, excellent,” the woman replied, and just in that moment, I could see her silhouette behind the screen, rising to her feet. Gulping, I traced the outline of a long-eared, sharp-muzzled head, perched on a short neck and sloping shoulders. I braced myself — unnecessarily, as it turned out, because the creature that appeared around the edge of the screen was just a woman, though more than humanly beautiful, dark-haired and shapely, in a sumptuous multi-layered robe of red-orange brocade. It wasn’t until she came closer and smiled at me that I saw the shift in her face and realized my first instinct had not lied. The lady’s teeth were small and sharp, and her amber eyes with their tiny pupils were those of a fox in bright sunlight. “Hello there,” she sang, stooping slightly, as if coaxing a small, feral animal.

“Uh, hello,” I said. “Forgive me for intruding. I’m… dreaming.”

The two dragons laughed in their stormy harmony.

“I don’t believe you are,” said the fox woman. “Unless we’re all sharing the same dream – and the philosophers have been speculating about that for thousands of years! In any event, you’re certainly not intruding. Welcome to Ji Wai, my humble cha lou.”

I remembered the four shifting characters on the wooden sign.

“Away from the Machine?”

“Quite!” the lady grinned. “The cafe you were looking for was La Macchina, correct? This teahouse is its antipode.”

“You can’t even get a cell signal here!” a group of fairies chirped, with lacerating cheer. Their flight around my head was a sudden swirl of coppery leaves.

Dead zone,” rasped an 8-foot ghoul over my shoulder, through a lattice of needle teeth.

“It’s paradise!” half the tanuki crew proclaimed, as the other half adoringly chorused, “We love our Auntie Hu!”

I wondered if the tea everyone was drinking weren’t spiked a bit. I didn’t know then that the Sublime Ones can get drunk on anything, though I should count myself lucky that I ended up working in the teahouse and not the bar. You really don’t want to know what booze does to them. “Auntie Hu” smiled benignly at them all.

“I should have known,” she said to me, her sunset eyes sparkling, “you’d be coming to apply today. We rarely have such a full house. Some of my gentle customers are quite sensitive to the signs. And naturally they’re excited and curious. They’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to have tea served by a human hand.”

The weight of understanding settled over my shoulders, a heavy, itchy coat, perfectly tailored. New girl’s here. I felt the weight of eyes upon me too, glittering with an enthusiasm that bordered on avarice. At a gesture from the tea mistress, they all went back to their games and conversations, but it was long enough for me to feel like the prize pig at a county fair. Or the catch of the day.

“I think you must be mistaken,” I faltered, “I… don’t know the first thing about tea, and… well, I actually kind of have a job already! I just… came in by accident…”

A ripple of bone-chilling laughter lapped the room, sliced short by Auntie Hu’s bark.

“Quiet!” Then, “Please, dear friends,” she quickly purred, mollifying her nervous patrons. “Let us allow the young lady to relax and get her bearings. She’s clearly been under some stress, and you’re not helping her nerves! Amelia, sweet, will you bring us some of the new Tie Guanyin? I will do the ceremony myself.”

Even behind her gag, the siren’s smile was chilling. Her mad, red-rimmed eyes held mine for much too long before she disappeared behind a screen.

Now then, do make yourself comfortable,” Auntie Hu said, ushering me into a seat at her table. I perched on the edge of it, hopefully communicating my strictly temporary presence there. My hostess smiled over her shoulder as she went to the short bookshelf beside the screen and picked up what I later learned was a tea tray – a shallow, hollow wooden box with long slits cut in the top. A miniature teapot and four small cups balanced upon it. By the time she turned and set these on the table between us, she had completely shed her human disguise.

Very simple tools to perform gongfu cha,” she said, gesturing with her unsettlingly expressive paws; I instantly noted the opposable thumbs. This is only one of the ceremonies I will teach you. If you wish. But all the steps, all the names, all the necessary amounts, temperatures, times – all that can wait. For now, just enjoy. As my guest.”

I don’t think I’d ever heard the word uttered with such genteel malevolence, and yet I was completely beguiled by the way she held it in her sharp little teeth. The part of me that trembled, the lizard brain that crouched before the carnivore, was gradually starting to grapple with the part that said YOU ARE HAVING TEA WITH A FREAKIN’ FOX FAIRY! Glancing over to where the mermaids gossiped, combing their long, green hair, I saw two small goat-like unicorns drinking from a golden bowl, horns crossed affectionately. I began to feel the tug of something very dangerous.

Reading my thoughts quite effortlessly, Auntie Hu exchanged a glittering glance with Amelia, who lightly dropped a tin of tea on the table with one claw, and a steaming kettle with the other. The siren’s expression as she departed seemed suddenly haunted, conflicted; I know now it was a warning, a flicker of conscience.

In Japan, they call us Kitsune,” Auntie Hu said, slowly, as if she were spooning her words with the tea leaves into the small pot. She then proceeded to pour hot water into the pot, swirl it around, and pour it out over the open tea cups. Taking a pair of little tongs from her sleeve, she bathed each cup in the next cup down until each was empty of hot water. Unbelievably fragrant steam rose from the slats of the tea tray. She poured more water in the pot, and sat with paws folded as the tea steeped. “The Chinese used to call us Huli jing,” she said, eyes lowered; her voice seemed to drift between boredom and a foreboding anger I would soon learn to shrink from. “But they were the first to dream us and the first to drive us out, and now the word is a cheap metaphor for a human woman of high cunning and low morals. At least some of the Japanese still respect us, though we are more often impersonated by half-naked schoolgirls wearing pointy ears and bushy tails for the titillation of salarymen in Kitsune Cafes. And some of you Borderless enjoy writing stories about us, though your understanding of our ways – all our ways – is superficial. Once upon a time, of course, we were just foxes. But humans are a meddlesome race.”

Smiling sweetly, she poured tea into the empty cups, and bowed to me to drink. Somewhere, in all the stories and poems that had soothed and dazzled my eyes in those weeks at the library, I knew there was some important recurrent theme about drinking or eating in the spirit world, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. As it happens, that’s half a lie anyway. You can leave their world no matter how much you eat or drink; it’s when you dream of coming back that the curse is complete. We must both remember that, afterwards.

What I’d told Auntie Hu was true; I knew nothing about tea. But I think it’s safe to say that the Tie Guanyin I was served was of a quality that would make the most jaded connoisseur weep. I had never tasted anything like it. Later I saw the plantation where the tea bushes grow tall and wild, and the weary, sad-eyed creatures that balance on their spindly, whip-scarred legs, delicately plucking the leaves. The Sublime Ones abhor the bodies humans are born with; they waste no time in tailoring them to their needs, or their whims. After all, we do the same to them.

Delicious,” I whispered, feeling light-headed from the sheer green freshness of what I’d tasted. I drank a second cup, aching to suspend the sweetness in the back of my throat. Auntie Hu’s grin stretched impossibly, from pointed ear to pointed ear; she prepared another pot without delay. Not until I was savoring my tenth cup did I register the fact that all eyes in the teahouse were once again upon me.

Qing,” the tea mistress pronounced, a hovering, softly chiming sound. “That’s what the Chinese call that taste. It means clean and clear and green all at once. You’ll get a lifetime employee discount, you know, on all our teas, which I can assure you are equally fine.”

Lifetime,” I repeated, my brain finally deciding to retrieve a whole mass of critical information on the… people I was dealing with. “Um, listen, this is all a bit for me to, ah, absorb right now, you know? I mean, is it OK if I take a few days to think about it? Is there a… an application I can take with me? Like I said, I kind of do have another job offer…”

Auntie Hu’s eyes narrowed at my lie, but she didn’t call me on it. She flicked her eyes to Amelia, who flew over and hovered beside us. The siren winced as Auntie Hu plucked a feather from her tail. I accepted it reflexively, turning it over in my fingers; it seemed so ordinary, like the feather from a crow you might pick up from the sidewalk. It wasn’t until I got back outside, into my own world, that I felt the uncanny weight of it. It pulled the soul down inexorably into despair.

I do understand, my dear,” said Auntie Hu, setting her soft little paw on my hand. It was bizarrely adorable and she knew it. “Take as long as you need. Mind you, it may take a few tries to find us again. But if your heart is in it, you will.”

I still laugh at that, as if she was some archetypal old wise woman in a movie, saying, “Just look into your heart and believe.” And I laugh at myself, for failing to remember that even here, basic job interview common sense applied. What were the benefits? The hours? Did I get vacation time? What were the risks to my immortal soul?

Thank you,” is all I said, getting to my feet and looking dazedly around the room. Everyone pointedly went back to their tea, but they didn’t seem let down or annoyed. Once again, I felt invisible – except to Auntie Hu and Amelia. Remembering my manners, I said: “And thank you for the wonderful tea.” I even bowed, to both of them. One of Amelia’s eyes twitched, either with amusement or irritation, I don’t know. Auntie Hu merely inclined her head with her knowing little smile. She didn’t bother to stand up.

Walk slowly,” she sang, looking elsewhere, a clear dismissal. I bobbed my head again, and struggled not to run out into the falling night.

The gasoline rain had diminished to a mizzle, and I could see clearing sky to the east. I took a few steps in that direction, toward my apartment, but curiosity compelled me to look over my shoulder. I was unsurprised to see Caffè La Macchina’s sign glinting there. I stood there for some time, caught between the desire to run home and sort out in calm solitude the wild things had just happened to me, and the overpowering need to hear human voices, see human faces. Best of all would have been to have someone to talk to – not to tell them what I’d experienced (they’d never believe me) – but to… I didn’t know what, really. I went into the cafe, as if it would have the answer for me. I guess in a way, it did.

When I saw the friendly barista wasn’t there, I almost turned around. But the ten dollars in my pocket pushed me forward. I asked for a macchiato and a job application. The barista said, “Nine dollars. We’re not hiring.” I didn’t give her a tip. I trudged to one of the tables by the cocoons; just the flares from everyone’s tablets made my stomach turn. I stared at the faces bathed in blue light; I knew many of them, and they all had their handles and selected hashtags displayed outside, inviting conversation through the veil. A month ago, I’d have been chatting with all of them in R+. A group of three girls I didn’t recognize occupied the table next to me, but they were deep in metaconversation; I couldn’t determine what they were watching or playing by their occasional giggles and oh-my-gods, but I had no intention of intruding. R+ was sacred. You could get arrested for trespassing on someone else’s reality.

So I finished my coffee in silence (it was shockingly disgusting but I’d paid so much for it) and made my way home. I bought a bottle of water from my apartment’s grocery just to cleanse my palate. Clean and clear and green at once. Brooding on the way up the stairs (I couldn’t read the elevator numbers), I shuffled through my options. First thing tomorrow, I told myself, go to the doctor and apply for Disability Verification. At least it would give me access to facilities for the less supernaturally blind. Maybe I could learn Braille. Use the screen-reader at the library. Look for jobs that way. Get help. If the doctors cooperated. God, I didn’t want more tests… More debt… When I got to my apartment door, I put my hand in my pocket to get my keys, and touched Amelia’s feather instead. A shock hit my heart like I’d touched a fence powered not by electricity but by hopelessness and grief. Words in my own voice rose around me like flood water, submerging and pulling me down: nothing matters, and nothing helps, and I am alone. I dropped to my knees in the hallway, not caring who saw or heard me, and I wailed with all my soul. No one saw, and if anyone heard, no one dared to move.

Ten days. That was how long it took me to find Ji Wai again. I’d started looking the day after the doctors referred me to Psychiatric. After retracing all my steps as precisely as I could a hundred times, I realized it must be the rain that was missing, but there was nothing I could do about that. So when walking past the door of La Macchina didn’t work, I tried going through the door, back out the door and in again. A couple times, I sat down, compelled to drink a cup of their third-rate jasmine, just on the off chance that the change might happen while I was inside the cafe. It was on one of those days that I finally connected.

I was sitting at a table by the window and had just seen “my” barista come in from the back room. She must have been on vacation all that time, somewhere sunny and warm, because she was brown as a nut. Her back was turned to me as she checked her hair in the mirror behind the counter, but our eyes met there, and she smiled. I did too, until I saw the reflection of the clouds outside the cafe windows. They’d come from nowhere, mammated and greenish-blue. When the first rumble of thunder rattled my teacup, it rattled the mirror too; forming bizarre images with the vibration – howling, grinning, beautiful, hideous faces. The sound of human exclamations startled me as sheets of rain began to slam and slash at the windows like a beast that wanted in. Puppet-like, I jerked to my feet, the siren’s feather clutched tight in my hand. I rushed to the door. I didn’t look back.

Outside, the rain was so heavy, I felt like I could actually drown in it; I pulled my hood up, making a small pocket in which to breathe. When I wiped my face, I smelled petroleum. Whirling back toward the cafe, I saw the familiar wooden sign of Ji Wai and started to laugh hysterically. The hardworking little letters shuffled from their elegant pictograms and spelled out “Welcome Hope” – before the “P” team rearranged itself into an “M”. I wanted to kiss them then. Now I know they are the most insidious and spiteful of all the creatures here.

It must be the tea-and-tears ink, but this is the first time I’ve set words to paper and not had them rearrange what I write. I started writing this last night and so far everything is exactly like I’d written it. Like I said, that could change by the time it gets to you. This is why I stopped keeping a diary here; it was just too bloody entertaining for them to make me doubt the things that have been happening to me from day to day these past twenty years. And not all of them have happened, not where anyone else can see. When you get on a first-name basis with a customer here, they can take your head anywhere, and make you see and do and endure anything they like. Auntie Hu considers this lagniappe.

Twenty years… Maybe it just feels that long. I stopped counting time too, after the failed escape. There’s only ever one of those, I think. Until Auntie Hu dropped her bombshell about the possibility of rescue, I’d really given up all hope of getting my old life back. Because there was fat chance of that unless I could get my old body back too.

I guess I should tell you this now, huh? Ah Christ. But I’ve held your attention this long, you know, and that felt so good… So if you put the letter down, horrified and disgusted in advance, it’s OK. Better you know now than be surprised later. And who knows, maybe you’re the scientific-minded type, and actually like creepy crawlies. I’m warning you, though, I’m pretty damn creepy. And I crawl very quickly. I can’t seem to help it.

Do you remember Auntie Hu going on about how much her customers were looking forward to being served by a human hand? Like I told you, the woman never lies, outright. My hands are about the only things that have stayed absolutely, revoltingly human. I’ve got a few more of them, too. Six more, to be precise. Oh wait, I’ve seen my eyes too, and they’re more or less mine. No: definitely more. Six more. I’ve gone up several sizes, too – mostly vertically. I need to be tall enough to pour Sichuanese style for those idiotic tanuki. At least I wasn’t “gifted” with the ability to spin silk too; for me to serve them hanging down from the ceiling would have delighted them no end, but the webs would be too challenging for Amelia to navigate.

Poor Amelia, she really believed my arrival would release her. But as it happened, Auntie Hu just decided Ji Wai was a little understaffed… Now we share a tiny sound-proofed cell, and I beg her to sing until my tears fill this bucket. There’s actually nothing supernatural whatsoever about Amelia’s voice. Her blues is just too beautiful for the Sublime Ones to bear. Who knew.

I just want to keep on writing – we didn’t even get to the story of how Amelia got here – but she is reminding me gently of our mission, so it will have to wait. Our mission, because I’m sure as hell not leaving her here. Her head is full of ideas and regrets, and she wants at least the chance to see our world again, even if she doesn’t survive the trip. Even if neither of us survive, or if our transformation is irreversible, it’s worth the risk… I’m sure Auntie Hu will cast her fishing lures again, and she won’t be short-handed for long. The sea is full of fools, who’ll bite on anything that flashes.

Which reminds me. Before we get to the instructions, which are quite simple, one (perhaps obvious) piece of advice: you should be wary now of the time you spend staring at a screen. Even though you’re reading this on paper (oh crap, I suppose they’ll have gone and digitized it), you’re already in their sights. I’m not suggesting you should completely abandon the digital world; I’m just saying: visit, don’t live there. Also, screens are dangerous because they’re reflective. All reflective surfaces – even ones as small as raindrops – are portals to this place. But inorganic mirrors are insulting to the Sublime Ones. A puddle, or a calm pond, or a bowl of water presents us to them more favorably. It’s on their terms, and respectful. When the reflection is through silver and glass, even though the portal is man-made, they will tolerate it for its simplicity. But when you see yourself reflected in the eye of the Machine, whose fantasies threaten to overrun them, that’s an act of aggression. War has not been formally declared yet, but based on what I’ve seen and heard here, it’s only a matter of time.

So. Your instructions. I’ve already told you about the rain. The right and timely rain is the first of two conditions that must be met before you make your attempt. The second, which may surprise you, is that you are not alone. I want you to get any solitary knight-in-shining-armor notions out of your head right now, because loneliness is the surest possible way for them to get a grip on you. I recommend just one companion, but it can be two or twenty (hell, organize a tour!) as long as they are friends, or even potential friends, with whom you share real space. No R+. Face-to-face. The romantic in me has ideas about this, but please don’t let me influence you. My tentative grasp on that subject no doubt made it all the easier for them to snag me. (And no, I don’t know the barista’s name. Later, if I’m not an abhorrent monstrosity, I intend to find out. Or maybe even regardless! Maybe she’s the scientific-minded type, too.)

Beyond these two conditions, there is really only one thing you must do. Prepare a pot of tea. It doesn’t have to be a fancy pot, and you don’t have to do gongfu cha or chanoyu or any other ceremony, unless you’ve a mind to. Nor does it need to be Tie Guanyin or any other oolong – green, black, white, it doesn’t matter. It only needs be the absolute best tea you’ve ever tasted. Needless to say, it may take you some time to find that. It’s OK. Amelia and I can wait a little longer. And your friends won’t mind. There are definitely worse eccentric traditions to start than drinking good tea in the rain. Just keep that thought, way at the back of your mind, that strange things might happen, because you don’t want to land smack dab in the middle of Ji Wai unprepared. I can’t guarantee you won’t find yourself on the lap of a troll, or a tanuki’s… ottoman.

But here: that smile that’s been on your lips off and on this whole time – that “what the hell?” smile – that is really the critical ingredient to this rescue mission. It’s just close enough to a “what if?” smile that it will not only get you into this world but also safely out again. When you finally break through, you will be compelled to believe in what you see. It’s OK to be amazed. They are, simply, Sublime. Some are beautiful, others are cool, comical, terrifying, repulsive. But it’s what you don’t see – the part they inherited from our worst fantasies – that will kill you if you look too long. Believe in them like a child might, one who doesn’t know torture or war, who hasn’t yet realized the horrors the human imagination is capable of. You and your traveling companions can even sit down and drink tea with them if you like. It’s phenomenally good tea. But you might make yourself an even better brew some day. Amelia and I will take care to serve you ourselves, naturally. It’s our jobs. But when the time comes, I want you to yawn and say “Time to go home”. And then, well, we’ll go home. Simple as that. So I’m told.

Well, it must be nearly morning. Auntie Hu’s just dropped off the bottle Amelia and I share every night to make us sleep without dreams and be well-rested workers tomorrow. We’re always grateful for this. The nightmares we see in our waking hours are bad enough. Usually, we get drunk talking about our day, exorcising our demons – but last night, after we found out we may not be doomed forever, was the first time we ever talked about the future. What it’ll be like, going home. All Amelia sees is the possibility of adventure; all the things she’s got to catch up on, all the places she never even cared to see before. I’m more practical-minded, like, we’ve got to fund all these travels somehow. I keep thinking we should go into business together. Last night we agreed that whatever that business is, it won’t be food service. At least we discovered we have a sense of humor. Maybe tonight we’ll work up the nerve to talk about the possibility neither of us dared to raise with Auntie Hu. What happens if we’re still monsters. Oh wait, no need, Amelia just nailed it: join the circus, of course.

So. These are my last written words in this world. As soon as I finish this letter, it will fold itself up and fly to its mistress, there to be shoved in a bottle just like this one and dumped into the sea, or (perhaps more likely) mailed to a magazine that publishes nothing but stuff no one believes, or converted to the code they hate but have learned to manipulate and published to somebody’s obscurely meandering blog. The cell will feel strange after that. Not less real but perhaps a little less permanent. I have a feeling we won’t need to talk about it. Just roost close together, drinking in companionable silence, thinking about that strange, fragile magic called hope.

Tomorrow, I guess we all start another day. Watch the rain. Pour some tea. See what happens.

Zhao Chengxiang, A Day for Drinking Tea 喝茶的日子

Author’s Postscript: The cherry on top of finally finishing this piece was that when I was outside editing the third (or fourth) draft — yes, on paper — the wind picked up and carried away my first page. I have no idea where it went!

Note on the Artist: Zhao Chengxiang (赵澄襄), also known as “Cheng Zi” (澄子), from Shantou, Guangdong province, is one of my favorite modern Chinese artists. (Thank you, Cuaderno de retazos, for helping me discover her paintings!)  I encourage you to visit the link to Wan Fung Art Gallery and take time to browse her works. There’s something mysterious yet peaceful about her paintings of empty rooms (or sometimes empty except for cats).  The human occupants of these tranquil spaces always appear to have only just left, setting their book down to go put on a fresh kettle, or perhaps adjourn to an unseen part of the room for activities or purposes we can only guess at.  Or at least we assume they’re human.

3 thoughts on “Short Story: Away from the Machine

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