T. R. Napper’s work has appeared in Asimov’s, Grimdark, several issues of Interzone, and elsewhere. This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.
THE GREAT BUDDHIST MONK BEAT DOWN
by T. R. Napper
I walked down the steps. I didn’t like matter transporters.
I was halfway to the lobby door when the concierge said: “Mister Kandel, a moment.” The concierge was a gleaming automaton with a head carved from walnut.
I walked back to the reception desk. The robot’s suit smelled like wet carpet.
“Yes?” I asked.
“You’ve lost your memories. We’d like to help.”
“We baked you a slice of apple pie.”
The concierge put a plate holding an acute triangle of apple pie on the counter, steaming. “Thanks,” I said. I picked up the plate and left.
I ate the pie as I walked down the street. It was cold out, flurries of snow starting down, so the hot pie was most welcome. I was licking the pastry crumbs off the plate as I arrived at the pharmacy.
I gave the plate to a store boy as I entered; he remarked how well I’d done in eating it all. I wasn’t really taking notice of him, though. Neurons had started flashing:
– (image) green halo, hovering above my head – / – (voice): desuetude, decline of neural pathways. Everything we’ve always wanted – / – (image) the bright blue-glowing logo of Baosteel – / (image) man in an expensive suit holding a purple pill between thumb and forefinger –
I looked around the pharmacy blinking, white and clean with rows of medicine, all neatly labelled.
“You’ve come for your medication,” said the pharmacist.
“But I’ve just eaten this pie,” I said, by way of explanation.
“I see,” he replied. “Who gave you the pie?”
“So I’m not sure I’ll be needing my medication.”
The pharmacist pulled a photon repeater from under the counter and levelled it at me. A little red light blinked on the side. The barrel stared at me, unblinking.
“Buddy,” said the pharmacist. He wore thin, silver-rimmed glasses. He was a mild mannered man with precise white hair. He held the gun as though it were some innocuous thing. Like a clipboard. “You always need your medication. Without your pills you’ll be unable to continue your work.” I felt I knew this pharmacist very well, but right then I couldn’t remember his name. I couldn’t remember my work right at that moment either, though some part of me agreed that it was indeed very important.
I thought about running away.
“Don’t even think about running away,” said the pharmacist.
I turned and hit the door with my shoulder. The façade of the shop shattered as I dived out into the snow, hot white heat behind, freezing white in front. Glass showered the street, flame too. I rolled onto my back and patted myself down for wounds. Nothing. Not a scratch. In the gutter, I raised myself to my knees. Out in the street, pedestrians bustled up and down the sidewalk, heads bent against the thickening snow, oblivious.
Inside the brightly lit store, the boy and the pharmacist looked at me. Anger from the pharmacist, wry amusement from the boy. They didn’t move. Just stood there, like statues.
I dusted off snow and glass and then continued down the street, thinking about pie.
The street was full of robots. More than I had seen in a long time. I wondered if it was robot pride day or some such thing. But they didn’t seem to be singing songs or holding placards. Just walking down the street, oblivious. Some sheep. Some tigers. Some human-like. Chromium and wood-panelled heads bent against the cold, like everyone else.
I bought a ticket at the box office. I was late, so the usher had to shine a torch down the aisle, showing me to my seat. The movie was about a drunken poet eating someone’s brain. I laughed a lot. It was just me in the cinema, though halfway through a brass monkey came in and sat at the other end of my aisle. I couldn’t help but notice every other scene it’d move a couple of seats closer. Finally, during a particularly funny moment where the poet beat up the Buddhist monk for requesting alms, the monkey took the seat right next to me. It smelled like soap, the back of its brass hands were covered in fine black fur.
“You know,” it said, “you’re in the wrong business.” The monkey’s voice was extremely high-pitched. It grunted a bit before and after it spoke. Still, it seemed to take itself quite seriously.
“I feel like some whiskey.”
The monkey sighed. Oo-oo ah-ah, sigh. “I suspect that’s because you think you’re in a cinema, and someone in the movie is drinking whiskey. You’re very suggestible, in the state you’re in. Is someone drinking whiskey?”
On screen the guy was drinking whiskey straight from the bottle, off-stage, just before a poetry reading.
“That so?” I said. “Well the scene before this, the poet peed on another guy’s eyeball when the second guy tried to look at him through a peephole in the cubicle. I hope you’re not thinking of following me to the toilet.”
“What?” Oo-oo ah-ah. “What on earth are you watching?”
I pointed at the screen by way of explanation.
“I’m not in your reality,” said the brass monkey. “That’s the problem.”
“Do you have any pie?” I asked.
“I’m glad you asked.” The monkey opened its chest cavity and pulled a slice of cherry pie from it. “This will help.”
I ate the pie while the monkey watched. There was a softness to its green glass eyes I found quite strange.
“Good?” it asked.
“Tasty,” I replied, around a mouthful.
“Do you know what year it is?”
“Do I get more pie if I answer correctly?”
“The year, Kindred.” And as the name left her lips I realised it was mine.
“Well,” I said. “It’s 3096.”
“No Kindred, no. Its—”
There was a commotion up at the doors to the cinema—people yelling, feet stomping, flashing blue lights. The brass monkey grabbed my hand. “Come with me,” it said, and its voice seemed more human female now than monkey.
“I’d quite like to watch the movie.”
The lights came on. The movie froze on an image of the poet lying in a garden bed, two cops standing over him, hands on hips. I looked around, the monkey was gone. Men came walking down the aisle. One of them looked a bit like the pharmacist, though he’d lost the silver-rimmed spectacles and now was wearing a suit.
“How the hell did you get here?” he asked. His voice had an American accent, refined. The men with him all looked Chinese. They kept craning their necks to look around the cinema.
I held up my ticket stub. “The usual way.”
“Oh,” he said. He smiled and it was rather a convincing one. “About your medication.” He put a hand into his pocket and pulled out a small purple pill. “You missed your last dosage. You’re a very sick man, partner.”
I connected this memory with the other—the flash-bulb memory of a man offering me this same pill in some other place. A sterile place with white walls and leather straps hanging from a bedframe.
I’d been feeling pretty placid the whole day, even after he shot at me with a photon-repeater. But as he offered me the pill, a fear crept its way down my chest, finding a place to nest at the pit of my stomach. I licked my lips and glanced toward the green exit sign, down near the silver screen.
“Now don’t do anything hasty. You’re being manipulated. They are trying to implant false memories in your mind, to distract you from your important investigation.” He took another step, pill in the palm of his hand.
I yelled: “Flying nova kick!” And flew through the air, my foot colliding with the pharmacist’s head. He exploded in a cloud of red and sparkle and I landed in a combat pose. The Chinese guards took one look at the glittering remains of their boss and ran.
I strutted down the street. The snow was getting heavier. I was smiling, thinking about whiskey and another slice of pie when a Buddhist monk came out of the white flurry in his orange robes.
I yelled: “Crouching tiger punch!” and hit him in the face.
My aim was off, my blow striking him at the top of his forehead. The monk yelped and staggered off, holding his head.
I winced and swore. The two bottom knuckles were bloody. I held my fist to my chest, slipping on the sidewalk as I tried to hurry away from the swaying monk.
The snowstorm built. I couldn’t even see the cars parked along the road. I wasn’t cold, though—just the opposite. Sweat rolled down my forehead, my neck. I blinked the sweat out of my eyes and pushed my way into the next door that presented. A fortuitous choice: a cool and dimly-lit slice of my imagination. The bar had a neon blue Pabst Beer sign above the bar, red-leather booths, and a nostalgic haze of cigarette smoke.
I took a stool at the wood-topped bar, sighing as I did. The place was lightly sprinkled with humans in fedoras, drinking beers and murmuring sad stories.
The bartender rolled up.
“Glass of ice and a double of Lagavulin Sixteen,” I said
“Separate. And a good cigar, if you have one.”
“Of course,” said the bartender.
A body sat on the stool next to me. I hadn’t heard it approach. It said: “Did you enjoy your pie, sir?”
I turned to look at the newcomer. It was the walnut-headed concierge, wearing loose tracksuit pants and top. Its dark eyes shone as it looked at me, and it still smelled like wet carpet.
“Just come from the gym?” I asked.
“I’m on the run, Kandel. They’re after me.”
“Better have a drink then,” I said, and signalled the barman.
He rolled over, placed a glass in front of each of us. He pointed his finger and whiskey came out the tip, filling up each in turn.
The concierge seemed about to say something. “Actually, I do need a drink,” he said instead, picking up his drink and taking a long slug.
As he placed the glass back down he said: “Do you know who I am, Kandel?”
“I didn’t know robots drank whiskey.”
“I’m not a—” the robot sighed. “I think you need more pie.”
“Hmm,” I agreed.
“We couldn’t get any more in to you.”
“A packet of chips will do then.”
“This is serious. They’re out to get you. Wipe your memory, brainwash you, have you do their bidding.”
I pulled a napkin from the bar, poured the ice into it, then folded it and rested it on the top of my knuckles. “You’re sounding paranoid there, Mister Concierge.”
The robot finished its drink. Its sleek, chromium hand shook as it put down its glass. “Tell me something, Kandel, what were you doing yesterday?”
“Well,” I sad. “Well I—” I picked up the cigar the bartender had clipped and placed next to the drink. I wet the end with my lips. It lit itself. I savoured the taste, sighing out a thick cloud. “I haven’t been sleeping too well. The days—well they’ve been blurring into each other lately.”
“Okay then. What’s your occupation?”
“The name of your wife? Your daughter?”
“You see.” The robot leaned forward. Its breath was stale. “You don’t even know who you are. Didn’t even know your name, until Eulalie said it to you.”
That fear I’d felt earlier, with the monkey. It was returning again. My lips felt dry. I wet them with some whiskey. The truth was I couldn’t remember any day, at all. There was the sense of events, of a life lived, but every time I tried to look at it directly, my gaze elided. Slid out from under my concentration. I didn’t even know who Eulalie was, though it felt like a name I should remember.
“Why do you even care?”
The robot put its hand on my upper arm. “We’re old friends, Kandel, we went to Shanghai Jiao Tong University together.” I couldn’t help but notice that the robot’s words didn’t quite match its lips. Like badly-dubbed live speaking.
“Right,” I said. I pulled my arm away from him, worked on my cigar instead. The automaton watched as I had the bartender refill my glass. “So what’s the solution?” I asked.
“You come with me,” it replied, equal parts desperation and excitement. “There’s a place. It’s safe. We have all the pie you can eat. No one can touch us there. We can get you back, there. Back into our reality, back to the real world.”
“Hmm. And how do I know you’re not with them?”
The robot straightened in its chair. “With them?”
“Yes. Them. The pharmacist. He keeps trying to give me my medication.”
“Kandel, my friend. I’m trying to save you.”
“Maybe I should hop in a matter transporter, set the destination for random. Live quietly near a gin bar. Take up golf.”
“You can’t run from this. None of us can.” The robot’s tone had drifted into pleading.
“There’s one just over there.”
I pointed. The matter-transporter booth sat against one wall, clad in mahogany and polished steel.
“You’re better off taking the train, believe me.”
I sighed a cloud of cigar smoke. “Why?”
“Because matter-transporters don’t exist. That door you’re pointing at looks like it leads to a janitor’s closet.”
“It’s 2100, Kandel.”
“I know you think it’s—”
“But here, in the present, the Glimmer Train connects all of Asia. You can get anywhere, from here.”
The robot paused. “Do you know where here is, Kandel?”
I finished my drink. I was starting to get a little buzz. “I think I’ll go for a walk.” I hopped off the stool.
The concierge jumped off his and grabbed my arm again. “Don’t leave. Don’t go through that door. Come with me, there’s another way out of this place they don’t know about.”
I looked around the dank and small San Franciscan bar. Wood front door, green exit sign for the back. “They’ll probably figure it out.”
“No, Kandel. Please.”
I pulled my arm from his. “Look, the pie was great. But I have this urge to drink. A lot. Alone. Well, until I find myself a broad. A nice big round one, lonely, you know the type. Get a little loose, have little fun.”
“A broad? I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re a happily married man, Kandel. You don’t even like alcohol.”
“God, I sound like a bore.”
“You’re the finest neuroscientist of your generation.”
“Yeah, but do I know how to Watusi?”
The robot continued, insistent. “You discovered a way to reverse the generalised reduction in Kinase A proteins. You found it—a cure for the systemic decline in synaptic growth in the human brain. You’re a hero, Kandel, you changed the world. Or were going to, anyway. Until Baosteel got wind of your discovery. They drugged you, wiped your memories and replaced them with ones suited to their interests. You’ve been helping them perfect a new exo-memory system. It’s control, Kandel, control of everything.” The robot grabbed my sleeve one last time. “The corporations—mind control, control of history, the future. Only you can save us, Kandel. Don’t go through that door.”
I walked out the door.
The concierge stumbled out after me. The snowstorm had died down a little, though it was still hot outside. A man wearing wrap-around sunglasses bumped into the concierge, spilling his coffee down the robot’s front.
The concierge gasped, gleaming hand grasping the coffee stain. It half turned, sparks popping, and collapsed onto the pavement.
The outlines of the concierge blurred. Sparks were drops of blood, then sparks again, the walnut head was actually walnut hair, dyed, on a middle-aged Chinese man wearing grey sweat pants. Then back to the automaton, twitching. I looked up. The object in the man’s hand looked like a gun, then a Styrofoam coffee cup.
The snowstorm increased in intensity. A blizzard. I steadied myself on the wall, white all around, barely able to see my feet. I used the wall to guide me away from the concierge and the sunglasses.
That went on for a few minutes until the blizzard started to fade and I could see my hand in front of my face again. A blue and red neon Budweiser sign caught my attention. I lurched toward it, breathing heavy in the heat, and found myself at the counter of a hole-in-the-wall bottle shop.
A woman with a red eye patch said: “Well? Want do you want?”
“Tsing Tao Rice Whiskey.”
She gave me bottle of Smirnoff du Czar in a brown paper bag. I thanked her and threw a few red dollar bills on the counter.
The snow had cleared enough to reveal a large, lush green park further down the road. I pulled the cork on the vodka and sucked some down as I made my way over. The shaking in my hands abated. It was a pleasant park. Two small lakes, stone bridges, coconut palms. I shrugged off my coat and sat down with a sigh on a green metal bench.
The strength of the snowstorm ebbed and flowed, white static occasionally blocking my view. People walked past, avoiding eye contact with me. Wind rustled the branches of a tree nearby. A huge green-and-ochre lizard idled across the paved walkway, not three meters from me, and disappeared into lush foliage.
One-third through the bottle the brass monkey appeared. Walked straight up, gleaming in the sunlight. It was a little taller than I remember, and had the gait of a human. It sat next to me without asking.
Hmm. Jasmine. It was the finest damn monkey I’d ever smelled.
“It’s a defensive mechanism, Kindred,” she said. Her voice had changed. It was sultry now. Like a lounge singer with pack-a-day habit.
The vodka was making me sweat. I managed a confused grunt.
“You’re retreating from reality and layering it with one of those detective novels you’re always reading.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t understand me, Kindred,” she said, voice tight.
I took a swig of the bottle. “Well. If that’s true,” I said, booze heat on my chest, “then the femme fatale in this story is a metal monkey. Now, you’d think I’d give myself a more alluring projection.”
“They want to take you back to Shanghai. Plug you back into their program. They’ve developed the next-generation Baosteel Infinity pin. Or you’ve developed one, anyway. They’ll—they’ll change everything.”
“Though if you are the femme fatale,” I said, “it means you’re leading me into a trap.”
“We have a facility in Bhutan. The government is isolated, sympathetic. There’s de-facto protection from India. We’ll be safe there.”
“Shi-iiit. Sure sounds like a trap.”
Her voice softened when she said: “I’m your wife.”
“Wow. They did things differently back in 2100.”
“No I—I’m not a monkey.”
“That’s a relief. I could be the greatest neuroscientist in the world—but you fuck one brass monkey.”
“Kindred,” she said, softness gone. “You don’t swear. You’re not yourself.”
I sucked on my bourbon, then burped. It smelled like apple pie. “Yeah, yeah lady. I’m the most boring man in the world. Gotcha.”
“You’re starting to sound drunk.”
“Tell me something, monkey.”
“My name is Eulalie, Kindred.”
“Tell me something, Ukulele.”
The monkey sighed. “Yes?”
“Who was the Buddhist monk I punched? In your reality?”
“You punched a monk? Why?”
“I don’t know. I thought it was symbolic or something. I keep seeing them around, suspicious bastards. Orange robes. Beady little eyes.”
“You’re in Bangkok.”
“There’s monks on the street all the time.”
I sucked down some more bourbon. “Probably a good pad thai around here. You hungry?”
“You are drunk.”
“Cause I’m really fucking hungry.”
The snowstorm was all but gone. The pharmacist walked up to us, dressed now in a finely-cut suit, a white homburg on his head. The brass monkey jumped from the bench and interposed herself between us.
The mild-mannered man said, over her head: “Come home, old friend. Come take your medication.”
“Go fuck a donut,” I slurred.
“The real world is San Francisco, partner. The real world is you, an alcohol and ice-nine addict, in rehabilitation.”
“You, a successful private detective, need to return to your practice. Re-open that case—the one that tipped you over the edge. The Baosteel corruption case.”
“Cool,” I said.
“Liar,” said the monkey.
“Who is the monkey then?”
He didn’t even blink. “The monkey is part of their program. I mean, buddy: a world-renowned neuroscientist who doesn’t drink or smoke. Faithful to his wife. Kidnapped by a Chinese memory-pin manufacturer in order to perfect the final version of their next product—does this sound like a real person to you? Does this grand conspiracy have even the faintest sniff of the truth?”
A drop of sweat rolled down the man’s cheek. His Adam’s apple bobbled while he waited for my answer.
“Why did you try to shoot me earlier?”
“I didn’t,” he said, without hesitation. “Your rehabilitation program includes memory readjustment therapy. A malicious entity has infiltrated this system and is trying to force a psychotic break from reality. Prevent you going back to work. They’re trying to stop us.”
“You’re here, in this reality now, aren’t you?” I asked.
The monkey interrupted: “They brought you to Bangkok to meet other experts in the field. We’re in Lumphini Park in the center of the city. He can’t touch us, not out in the open like this.”
The pharmacist ignored the monkey. “I’m here, old friend. I’ve always been here. I’m your partner at the agency. I was there three years ago, when you went into rehab for the first time.”
I waved a bottle at the park. “Where am I?”
“The Dante Sanatorium. We’re here, just two friends, four white walls, and one purple pill. Take it, and this psychotic episode will end. You don’t need to save the world, Kindred. You just need to save yourself.” He reached into his jacket pocket and brought out the pill.
I stood. “Fuck it. Time to get out of here.”
I hit him in the face with the bottle. The impact jarred my arm; the pharmacist crumpled.
Chinese men wearing sunglasses appeared. From behind trees, from the shadows of a nearby stone bridge. There was one even squatting behind a metal bin just three metres away.
The brass monkey grabbed my hand. “This way.”
The men with sunglasses ran after us.
The brass monkey put a finger to its ear. “Come on, come on. Give us some cover.”
As we ran across the open grass, the snow started up again. Harder and harder. I tripped over my own feet, elbow hitting the ground. But the monkey was there, pulling me, yanking me along.
I heard a pop and slam and there I was, in the blissfully cool interior of a car.
The Brass Monkey was sitting opposite, legs crossed. It had flowing dark hair I hadn’t noticed before. We were in a limo, apparently. She indicated the seat next to me with her hand. A steaming slice of cherry pie was on it. I took a bite. Delicious.
“How did you know he was lying to you?” she asked. The robot monkey features were fading now. In its place was an attractive Chinese woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She wore several large brass bracelets on each wrist.
I finished chewing while I thought it over. Pastry crumbs dusted my lap. Not full Chinese actually, she was Eurasian. Pale, smooth skin, a small smile, lips that would make a bishop blush.
“Well,” I said. “I understood everything the concierge was saying. About neural decay, about the Kinase A protein, all that. Everything, right there at the front of my brain. A strange knowledge for a detective.”
“Hmm. Pretty good deduction, for a neuroscientist.”
“Just logic,” I sighed.
“So why so glum?”
“Oh I’m not glum.”
“I’m fine. Eulalie.”
“You wanted to be a private detective, didn’t you?”
“And that stuff about large-bottomed women—I was watching that, you know.”
I felt myself go red.
“Whatever you have swimming around in your subconscious,” she said, leaning forward in her seat, “is best left to the novels, mister.”
I smiled, still a little red, and looked at the window. At the steaming streets of Bangkok. The glimmer scooters and the yellow auto-buses and the lady-boys standing on street corners laughing, and orange-robed monks walking slowly through a mad, chaotic city.
Eulalie Yu watched Kindred Kandel as he finished his pie. Inside the top pocket of her jeans was a silver blister. Empty now, each green pill broken in two, contents mixed into the pastry.
People would believe anything.
Copyright © 2017 by T. R. Napper