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Excerpts from Master of Golems
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The first memory of me is of my predecessor Hector inspecting me as I gurgle and drool all over my chin and tiny chest. He is sitting on the edge of his bed and holding me up under my arms. I am ten months old at the time. I must emphasize: the memory isn’t mine; rather, it’s Hector’s memory of me when he met me for the first time. It also happens to be Hector’s last memory that has survived, as he died shortly after.
I choose that very moment to empty my bladders. It is a copious stream: after making past my linen diapers, it soaks his lap well and good before he is wise to the proceedings. When he realizes what I’ve done, he curses and promptly let goes of me, putting my tender legs and rear on a trajectory with the floor.
I vividly remember the disgust he felt. Vivid, because I have nurtured—cherished, even—that particular memory over the years. Not just because it’s a glimpse of me when I was a baby, but also because it is the only intimate part of Hector’s that is left. Of course, there are other memories: some that I certainly know are his; some that are so intertwined with those of my other predecessors and of my own that I can only make a vague guess about their true origin; and some whose existence I am unaware of, but like an unbidden sea monster, surface unexpectedly from time to time and threaten to capsize my balance. All these memories are empty of emotion. When they come up, it is like reading scattered pages from the diary of a complete stranger. All except this very last. Because it is laced with emotion, the memory feels like it belongs to me, not Hector. Disgust was what he bequeathed me; I have embraced it and held it dear like a precious heirloom.
As I recall—or rather, as he remembered it—he was on his death bed, and had but a few days left. He had asked to see the child who would inherit his psi-cap, and someone had fetched me from the Lyceum’s orphanage to his rooms at the citadel.
Luckily, the floor is carpeted and it cushions my fall. I will not end up with a permanent disability. I start bawling. My cries are loud and shrill and this shatters any remaining goodwill that Hector might have had for me. ‘Take him away and throw him to the wolves!’ he says between coughs and gasps to the shocked caretaker who has brought me. ‘This villainous child will not have my soul!’ he thunders.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the decision wasn’t up to him. The Order had always been queasy about letting a psi-cap sit in the vaults: although there was no conclusive evidence, it was widely held that even the few memories that survive a psionicist’s death would be lost forever if the caps were left unused for long. Then there was the matter of availability. A psionicist was almost always an orphan or an offspring of the poor and the desperate; the irrational fear and distrust we inspired in the populace meant that few from the upper classes willingly gave up their child to the Order (while the same were not too hesitant about letting their second- or third-born study in the Lyceum’s universities or take up the Tellurian robe). To accept a psi-cap, a child had to be no more than twelve to fifteen months of age. Any older, and the soft tissue on the crown of the skull begins to harden and become bone, making it impossible for the cap to take root. Simply put, the Order couldn’t afford to be choosy. At the time of Hector’s passing, they had a child of the right age in the orphanage—me (Gil was available too, but for some reason the Order chose me; my brother would probably never have become a psionicist if not for a quirk of fate, as I shall explain later). I was going to be the recipient of his “soul”, whether he liked it or not.
The retreating back of the caretaker woman is the very last image of the scene that remains. I know now that he died two days later, but nothing of those final days is available to me. There are no beatific visions, no epiphanies, no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no boundary where his life ends and mine begins, unless I deliberately choose to draw one myself. Me and my predecessors—and Hector is no exception—blend into each other like a headless corpse with too many limbs.
Like all children, I have little to no recollection of when I was an infant. However, along with Hector’s memory of me, I may have retained one more memory of that nebulous time. I cannot say for sure, and it’s certainly possible that it is just a construct of my imagination. I doubt, because the memory in question appears to segue seamlessly with a different, real, memory of an incident that happened when I was eight.
I speak of the time when I saw the rooting of young Mabel’s psi-cap.
I was bedridden in the university’s hospital on account of a fever. Mabel was in the bed next to me, suffering from a similar affliction—that’s how I came to know her name. She must have been about a year old. She was from the girls’ orphanage. The doctor attending me told me that they were waiting for her to get better, and I didn’t enquire further about who was waiting and for what reason, preoccupied as I was with my own tribulations. I woke up one morning to find that she was gone and I thought no more about it. That same day my fever broke and the doctor said that I could get back to school in a day or two.
The memory goes like this. It is well past my bed time, but I am not able to sleep because it’s too hot inside. Wanting to stretch my legs a bit, I sneak out of my ward into the cool night.
The hospital consists of three separate blocks of buildings. I decide to walk to the farthest one and back. There’s a gibbous moon in the sky to keep me company.
I reach the far end and I am about to turn back when I hear someone sniffling. I stop and listen. There’s some tall shrubbery beside the cobbled path, and it appears that the sound is coming from somewhere behind it. I go around the shrubs to discover a small cottage-like building concealed behind. It stands separate from the blocks. The sniffs are emanating from an open window nearby.
Unable to restrain my curiosity, I quietly walk up to the window. The sill protrudes a head or so above me (I was a short kid back then). I find some bricks lying around and stack them one above another until I have the height I need. I stand on them and peer inside.
There is a child sitting on a bed. I recognize her as Mabel. It is her sniffles that have drawn me to the place.
This is where the real memory ends. I have no recollection of walking back to my bed, but I am sure that’s what I must have done next.
I never saw Mabel again. Not in the orphanage, nor in the hostels where psionicist children were housed after they started school. Nor did I encounter anyone in school with that name. While only a few children in the orphanage ended up becoming psionicists (either because nobody had died for a psi-cap to be available, or because they were past the implantation age), and those that didn’t were usually given over to the university guilds to be educated and brought up in a trade, Mabel’s fate had not been such. I didn’t realize it at the time: it was years later, during my final year at school, when I came across information that helped me connect the dots. It wasn’t exactly a secret—just one of those things they don’t tell you when you are very young. The truth is, of the chosen recipients, it was an even smaller proportion that actually became psionicists. The Lyceum’s anaesthetics and procedures, marvels as they were compared to the quackery that passed for medicine elsewhere, were but balms and tinkerings compared to those employed by the antediluvians—the sorry result of which was that more recipients died than not (more than six out of every ten, I think the figure was). Some did not survive the process; some, the complications that developed in the days that followed; and sometimes the cap outright rejected the recipient, but not before doing irreversible harm to the brain. That cottage was built apart from the rest of the hospital for a reason. It was where they implanted the damned things.
Whenever I try to recollect what I saw in that window, my perspective invariably shifts, and I find myself inside the room, sitting on the very same bed. There is a mirror on the wall opposite me. However, the reflection in the mirror is not of an eight-year-old Dante, but of an infant. I believe that infant is me. I am naked and I am crying. There is something on my shaven head, black, like a patch of hair that the barber forgot to shave. It gleams like a pool of tar caught in moonlight. It is a strip of metal, about three inches wide, and is held in place by leather straps that circle my face. The cap extends from the top of my forehead to my crown. There is someone else sitting beside me—a nurse most likely, her face hazy and featureless. She is trying to distract me from my crying with the toys that are strewn on the bed.
I am crying because there are a million little needles pricking my scalp. It feels like they are trying to bore their way into my head. The needles are alive, and endowed with a frightful resolve. Thin rivers of blood stream down from my head; they drip into my eyes and on my nose. Red lines crisscross my cheeks and flow down my neck.
Maybe because the woman does something to distract me, or because I’m tired of crying, I crack a smile. From the mirror, a maroon grin greets me back.