68: Research Subjects

on September 19, 2007 in 03: Virginal

In Which Mackenzie Becomes The Poster Girl For Bingo Night

There were no restrooms on the ground floor of the library. Luckily, Amaranth knew right where they were… for some reason… and ushered the increasingly antsy Two upstairs to see to her needs. I still wasn’t very comfortable moving at more than a slow walk, though I’d made the effort for Two… so I let myself get left behind in the big glass-walled lobby. I stopped when I noticed a couple of girls, one with red hair and one with brown hair.

The redhead was putting double-sided tape up on one of the doors. The brunette was trying to shuffle through a bunch of white posterboard signs declaring Wednesdays to be CSC Bingo Night. She looked up at me before I looked away, which almost made me look away faster, but I fought the impulse. I had a couple of questions about the Campus Social Committee, and fate wasn’t likely to give me a better excuse to ask them than this.

“Um… hi,” I said, walking over in what I hoped looked like a casual, easygoing manner… or at least not like a horribly awkward, fumbling manner employed by somebody who was having difficulty walking owing to having received a severe spanking with a metal-studded paddle.

“Hi!” she said cheerily.

“CSC,” I said. “You guys… you sponsored the dance last night, right?”

“Yeah, our first activity of the year,” the redhead said. “Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I really did. Um… I almost didn’t hear about it, though.”

“Publicity’s always a problem with the start of year dance,” the brunette said. “This year we asked if they could put something about it in the orientation packet, but they said then they’d have to let all the student groups… well, that’s why we got posters up in all the dorms before classes started.”

“You know, I… I don’t think you made it to my dorm,” I said, fighting off the urge to close my eyes as I raced through the sentence.

The two girls exchanged exasperated looks.

“Let me guess, you’re in a co-ed hall?” the redhead said. “Everything we put up in the co-ed halls gets torn down within a day. We can put up flyers in the boys’ dorms without a problem, but for some reason when you get a bunch of guys living with a bunch of girls, it multiplies the stupid…”

“Actually, my hall’s divided,” I said. I paused… not really for emphasis, but I think it worked out that way. “I’m in Harlowe.”

I watched all the color drain out of their faces. My stomach turned over, but I told myself it wasn’t personal… it wasn’t because they know who I was… or rather, what I was… it was just good, old-fashioned human xenophobia. If I’d been an elf or a dwarf or anything else that had the decency to at least look inhuman, they probably wouldn’t have reacted like that… or at least, they would have been able to disguise the reaction.

I told myself that, whatever the reason behind it, they were intimidated by me, not the other way around. If I wussed out now, I’d would mean I’d put myself through this for nothing.

“Why don’t you let me give you a hand with those posters?” I said. “I can take them back to Harlowe and save you guys a trip.”

I reached for them, but the brunette found her voice… sort of.

“These… these are for the library and the resource building,” she squeaked.

“Well,” I said, tugging them gently out of her unresisting hands, “you can always take the ones you’ve got set aside for Harlowe and put them up here, right?”

We all stared at each other for a couple of seconds and then the other two girls broke into a not-quite-run out the door. A whole bucket of emotion my body had drawn up from the well in anticipation of something that hadn’t quite happened tipped over, flooding me with sudden waves of nervous energy, and I leaned against the nearest wall, shaking.

“There you are… oh, honey, what happened?” Amaranth said, coming back into the lobby with Two in tow.

“I either just mugged a couple members of the social committee, or I volunteered to put up some posters,” I said, holding up the posters. “I’m not sure which.”

“Oh,” Amaranth said, not questioning me further. She took one of the posters and examined it. “Bingo night? That could be fun, don’t you think?”

“Not really,” I said. Given the choice of spending two hours staring at a card full of numbers and spending two hours staring at a wall, on the whole I had to say the wall sounded more appealing. I could stand solitude and silence. I couldn’t stand externally imposed monotony, such as the whole dull and pointless ritual of waiting for a number to be called, looking to find the number, covering the number… who would possibly find something like that fulfilling?

Actually, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t had a chance to get any activity books for Two… but here was an activity, ready-made.

“Two, what do you think of bingo night?” I asked, holding up the posters for her to see.

“‘Come to bingo night, every Wednesday during fall term’,” Two read aloud. She looked up. “Okay.”

“That’s actually more of an invitation than a…” I started to say, then stopped myself. Two had a brain, an actual functioning mind beneath her compulsion to obey. She understood idiomatic speech and was capable of interpretation. Was it possible she’d chosen to read the sign the way that would allow her to do what she wanted? “Two, ignoring any commands, would you like to go to bingo night?”

“Yes,” Two said. She added, with an obviously hopeful note in her voice, “Would you like to go with me?”

Fuck. Fucking fucked up fuck fuck fuck FUCK!

“Would you like me to go with you?” I asked, smiling.

“I wouldn’t like you to go if you wouldn’t like to go!” Two said quickly. Too quickly… I hadn’t kept my feelings completely out of voice, or off my face.

“I wouldn’t mind going if it made you happy,” I said.

“I wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t happy being there,” Two said.

“Oh, you two are just adorable!” Amaranth said. “You’ll both go.” Indecision danced back and forth across her face. “Ooh, and I will, too… one evening’s not so much. I mean, I’d have the whole night ahead of me after, and I’d be sure to meet new people.”

“Thank you,” Two said. “I am supposed to do my homework before any social activities but I can probably get it done.”

“Wonderful! It’s a date, then,” Amaranth said.

“Plan,” I corrected, a little flustered by her word choice. “It’s a plan! We have plans, as friends do, to go out… I mean, to go and do things with each… it’s not a date!

“Cute,” Amaranth said, reaching out and pushing my nose with the tip of her finger. “You are cute.”

“Amaranth,” I said, hoping the full weight of my horror at the idea would fill my voice so that she would take this seriously. “I would never… I mean, I don’t think anybody should take… but… Two is like my sister!”

Once again, words had come out of my mouth with no warning issued to my brain, leaving me absolutely floored by what I had just said. This time I wasn’t the only one. Two made a little choked-off gasping noise. I turned and saw her eyes had gone about medium-wide, not the spiraling-out-of-control-into-sheer-terror look she sometimes got, but more one of surprise. Her mouth hung open, and her face was slack and still.

For a horrible moment I was afraid that the spell which had animated her had somehow broken down, rendering her as inert as the clay from which her body had been formed.

“Twoey?” Amaranth said gently. “Two? Honey?” She looked at me. “Is… is she okay?”

“I… I think so,” I said, looking at her. She looked surprised, but not upset or distressed. “Maybe this is what it looks like when a golem doesn’t know what to say,” I said. “At least, I hope that’s all it is. When most people can’t figure out what the right thing to say is, they say something anyway. Are you okay, Two?”

She gave a tiny, slow nod, her mouth still hanging open.

“Let’s take her inside and sit her down, at least,” Amaranth said. “Can you walk, honey?”

Two nodded again and held out her hand. I handed Amaranth the rest of the posters and took it, and was surprised by the firmness of her grip. We found a table. Amaranth put down the posters and pulled out a chair. I helped Two into it. Amaranth pushed her mouth closed, and it stayed that way.

“You’re sure she’s okay?” Amaranth asked me.

“Um… I think she is,” I said, though I couldn’t help worrying. “I mean, if a golem’s mind could be damaged that easily… it probably would’ve happened long before now, you know?” Once I’d said that, I wondered why it had sounded reassuring in my head.

“I’m okay,” Two said, very quietly. “I’m okay,” she repeated, a little bit louder.

“I think she probably just needs some time,” Amaranth said. “It was unbelievably sweet, what you said. She’s just getting used to it, is all.”

I think Amaranth was trying to convince herself of this, but I was pretty sure she was right. Well, I don’t know if I would have said “unbelievably sweet”, but she was right about the rest.

“Anyway,” she continued brightly, “I’m going to run down to the periodicals section. I read the abstract of a new scientific study about trained elephants, and I’d like to find the whole article, if I can… the paramystical publications tend to get marginalized, you know… but I want to scribe off a copy to include in my next burnt offering. I don’t think very many of the Mother’s followers ever consider that she doesn’t really have much to read, and I’m sure she’ll find the article’s implications staggering, particularly as they apply to the areas of reason and cognition.”

Elephants? Cognition? I didn’t put together the implications myself until after she was out of sight, and “staggering” was just the word for the image which brutally violated my poor brain once they sank in.

If it wouldn’t have been wildly inappropriate for me to pray at all, I would’ve got down on my knees and asked Mother Khaele to stick to her wands… though somehow I doubted the goddess needed me to tell her that turning one of her daughters loose on a pack or a pride or whatever of bull elephants was a bad idea.

I did thank whoever might be listening that Amaranth placed her duties to her maker higher than she did her need to push boundaries… I supposed that being a nymph meant you had to go pretty far to find a “wild fantasy”, and as long as they just remained fantasies, there was really no harm.

Though, I could really stand to stop hearing about them. Why couldn’t she be open about her clothes fetish, instead?

I did my best to clear my thoughts and then went about fetching the books I thought would be most useful. I didn’t use the card catalog… I simply went down the likeliest rows and grabbed what caught my eye. I was looking for technical information at this point. There was sure to be at least a book or two written by intelligent golems, telling their own stories from their points of view, but unless I understood how and why Two differed from the typical golem, those types of accounts might just lead me astray.

I had three books… two were overviews of golem creation, and the other was about the ethics of golem-making. From the back cover, I could tell its overall thrust was that there was nothing unethical about giving a creature life and even awareness for no other purpose than to perform menial labor, but I figured at the very least it might mention some cases–even a hypothetical one–that matched Two’s situation.

I figured I’d start with what I knew best, and that meant the first thing I needed to get a handle on was the magical aspect. A golem was created through a powerful act of runic enchantment. As with all magic, the exact technique differed from practitioner to practioner, but there were some commonalities. There were about a dozen symbols that were in relatively common use among golem makers.

The most important one, the one that made golems possible, was the one commonly called the Tree of Life. Two had that, of course. She also had the Wizard’s Mark, sometimes known as the Forked or Triune Staff, which gave her the power to perform magic… and the Circle of Mind, or Circle of Will, which granted intelligence and awareness. In her case, there was a negating slash across it… all intelligent golems had the negation mark if they were meant to be servitors, as without it, they would not be bound to their maker in the first place.

I hadn’t brought a notebook, because I can usually remember whatever I put my mind to. I fixed the images in my head… the Tree, the Forked Staff, and the Circle. Focused on their appearance, I realized something for the first time.

“Two,” I said, aloud.

“Yes?” she said from across the table. Apparently, she’d recovered from her reverie, or whatever it had been.

“No,” I said. “Your runes… the symbols kind of look like your name. T-W-O. Two.”

‘Yes,” she agreed.

I felt kind of dumb now that I’d said it.

“I just… thought it was interesting,” I said. I shrugged.

“I need clarification,” she said. “Is that why you’re reading about golems? Because we’re interesting?”

“In a way,” I said. “But it’s only interesting to me because of you.”

“Why?” she asked.

“I want to understand you,” I said. “I mean, your situation… what it’s like to be you. I want to help you, and that means I have to know about you… or rather, about golems.”

“Oh,” Two said. “Okay.”

I turned my attention back to the book. I’d kind of wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to undo and re-do the Will mark, without the slash… except, that mark was no longer her problem. The negation mark could be overcome by the simple act of ordering the golem “Do As Thou Wilt!”, as the slightly antiquated prose of the reference book put it. The ethics book mentioned that imperial law required all kinds of boilerplate attached to it… a legally freed golem would thereafter be among the most law-abiding of citizens… but however it was phrased, the “freeing instruction” fulfilled the compulsion to obey for the rest of the golem’s existence.

Still, the flaw in her personality was a direct result of the enchantment process… but… if I had read the books correctly, then in a certain sense the spells which made the golem were the golem. If the spells could be dissolved, it would be like killing Two. The same body could be re-enchanted, but the mind would be a clean slate. Perhaps it would be a little like giving Two total amnesia… except, if there was that drastic a change to her personality, could you even say that much?

No. Redoing the enchantments wouldn’t be an option… even if I somehow had the kind of power and skill necessary to make a golem.

It was actually kind of startling to realize the enormity of what I’d been contemplating. Here I was, a first year enchantment student… with only a single week of classes under my belt… and I had been imagining depowering and remaking a golem. Golem-making was such an advanced art that most of the enchanters who were capable of it were either centuries old or extremely specialized.

Realizing that also made me realize just how serious I’d been when I said Two was like my sister. I felt a flood of affection for her, and looked over to see how she was doing.

Evidently, she’d gone and got herself something to read while I had been absorbed in my own studies. It was a big… no, massive… book bound in leather… at least, I hoped it was leather. Given the apparent subject matter, it could have been something else entirely. The text was hand-lettered, in the old style Pax where the letters still bore unmistakable signs of their runic origins. Covering one entire page was an enormous reproduction of a woodcutting, showing a flame-wreathed naked male figure standing on a pyramid of burning skulls, streaked with gore and sporting an erection that was either being struck by or emitting lightning.

“Two,” I said, my voice gone very, very small. “What are you doing with that book?”

“I-I’m reading about demons,” she said, alarmed by the fear in my voice. “I… I.. I want to help you, and that means… that means… am… am I doing it wrong?”

“Two,” I said, pulling the book away from her and closing it. “You don’t need to know about demons, okay? It’s not like… we’re not like… you can’t help me, Two. I’m what I am, and that’s all I’m going to… demons are bad, okay? Really bad. Evil. I mean, even I’m… sometimes I… I feel like…”

I shook my head, helpless to convey exactly how not-good I knew I could be.

“No,” Two said, her voice barely a whisper. She shook her head, very solemnly. “No,” she said, a little louder. “I think you are mistaken.”

“No, I’m… I’m…” I asked. My words died in my throat. Two had just contradicted me. She was wrong, but she felt strongly enough–or somehow was comfortable enough with me–to contradict me. That was enormous. It was huge. It verged on the miraculous.

Why did it have to be when she was so very, very wrong?

“I’m not mistaken, Two,” I said, firmly. It was a matter of safety… hers. I loved Two, but if I let her love for me blind her to the real nature of demons… I couldn’t be selfish. It would be better that she hated and feared me if it gave her a healthy respect for the forces of evil. “Demons are evil. I’m evil. I’m dangerous. I could hurt somebody. I could… I could hurt you.”

“Y-y-ou’re… m-mistaken,” Two stammered. “Y-you couldn’t.”

“I could,” I said. “I could lose control… I could let myself go bad…”

“You couldn’t,” Two said again.

“Two…” I said, desperately trying to figure out a way to reach her, to make her understand.

“You couldn’t,” she said, a third time. She’d calmed herself, and her voice was mostly steady.

I stared at her, defeated.

“I would like the book back, please,” she said after a few seconds. I pushed it about an inch closer to her… I couldn’t bring myelf to touch it any more than that. I knew it wasn’t actually cursed or damned… it might have been about the darkest magic, but had no dark magic about it. It just… felt dirty. That token inch was enough for Two to accept that the book had been given back to her, though, and she pulled it towards her, opened it, and resumed reading.

Well, I told myself, maybe she’ll accept what the book says about demons, even if she won’t listen to me.

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5 Responses to “68: Research Subjects”

  1. BMeph says:

    Sigh.
    Oblivious Mackenzie is Oblivious….
    But then, if they weren’t all oblivious, they wouldn’t be so darned cute!

    Current score: 0
  2. pedestrian says:

    It is an AWWW moment that their focused concern is to assist one another.

    Current score: 2
  3. Erm says:

    “Well,” I said, tugging them gently out of her unresisting hands, “you can always take the ones you’ve got set aside for Harlowe and put them up here, right?”

    Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Mack could be this awesome even in the early days of obliviousness.

    Current score: 2
  4. Erm says:

    Elephants? Cognition? I didn’t put together the implications myself until after she was out of sight, and “staggering” was just the word for the image which brutally violated my poor brain once they sank in.

    Hilaristurbing.

    Current score: 6
  5. Anon says:

    Do golems have souls? Would a free-willed but extraordinarily meticulous, magic-capable, and soulless creature in fact be the perfect Daemonologist?

    Current score: 5