Excerpt: 'A Hypocritical Reader' by Rosie Šnajdr
From A to B:
I was in Tokyo and in Tokyo I would be staying. I will admit there had been some misaims. With eye screwed shut and arm correcting in shunts, by and by the card enters slot. The suck-in is slow, slow. I key in the coordinates and wait, a weight of skull propped up on greasy touch display. The machine initiates with a soothing purr. Lids flutter. Eyes roll back. Head lolls.
I wake to a solemn beep. The card slid back in disapproval. I snatch it with the teeth. In the green booth-light the saliva-arc is a lucent binary, bubbling with zeroes. Then fingertip finds crack that has formed beneath the lustrous rope of spit. Panic is exclamatory. I have no friend in Tokyo. It was that quality had impelled me. And so I find myself, adrift in an alien metropolis, six-thousand miles from the consolation of bed, somewhere on the long, long road back from drunk. I shriek then. Flail out fists at the flimsy walls.
The technological advancements that presaged the arrival of instantaneous geo-relocation spawned frenzy. Media commentators fell over themselves to get an original angle. Endless think-pieces predicted its effects: the end of the flight-age; the slow decline of geographical linguistic variation; global market equilibrium; the relaxing of state borders, accompanied by a reactionary wave of ultra-nationalistic terrorism; some ethical resistance, not to the molecular construction of the individual, but to the destruction of the atoms in the original copy.
It was the apocalyptic epidemic scenarios, or ‘virus problem’, that became humanity’s new cold sweat. Even before the code was written, programmes of universal vaccination had been spit-balled, bankrolled and rolled-out. Legislators linked hands across datelines to insist that the machines must screen and destroy contraband—animal flesh, banned vegetable matter, weapons, drugs—and, inevitably, hot-wired machinery came to underpin a frenetic black-market. If your Italian sausage was cheap it was probably an illegal copy of an Italian sausage but there had, as yet, been no plague sans frontier. The pundits and politicians commended one another on their uncharacteristic percipience and a job well done. People, stupid as ever, did things like decide to spend their birthdays getting smashed in Tokyo, where there was no plan (b) if their ID cracked up in the middle of the night.
As my forehead reconnects with the illumined glass, I figure there is a chance it is a machine fault. As I consider reinsertion, I notice the lights blink. Not something they had done before. A cloud of precipitate grows and dwindles with my breath. Dimly lit beneath the fug, the words ‘error… error… error…’ scroll to infinity. My sigh fogs the pane more extensively, wafting back a smell of disappointment and cheap whiskey. There were no two options. I must turn back into the dust-scented drizzle and find another pod. I get a hand around the bottle, which I unscrew and swig from, before swerving lidless into the moist Tokyo night.
On the walk, I set upon a plan to hack proceedings by entering the co-ordinates of a public booth in the locale of my domicile, these things putting down stronger routes, or whatever, than the cheap home-installed type. But the second machine had performed like the previous. Moreover, it had had an infelicitous urine tang that made it no place to bed down for the night. In the third pod I took a prayerful drink and tipped what was meant to be a little but turned out to be a shoe-full over the card. That’s for good luck. The alcohol evaporates coolly, leaving behind an oily residue. My fingers leave greasy smears on the façade above the digitally rendered keypad. The wait is agonizing.
The card emerges defiant, a tongue lolling from the slot; beneath judgment is passed: ‘or… error… error… error… error…’. So, it’s either I’m knocking out nodes one by one, or this whole coms-district is in nervous collapse. And there is nothing I can do but go on. For encouragement’s sake, I call up the municipal network map, a constellation of improbable opportunities for redemption, as I spray my already sodden coat with an illegal copy of an expensive water retardant. I will work my way towards the Embassy building, testing the pods that I pass. It’s a long walk with no metro.
*** *** ***
There is a jolt when you ‘arrive’ that is inauspicious for the intoxicated. Space expands around with a pop. The promise of vomit tingles in my jaw, saliva accumulates but nothing untoward arises. As card slides out of the wall into my outstretched palm, a thin strip of plastic shears free. When I attempt to pick up the shard, I stumble face-first into the glass door and out into the lounge. The cat awakes to glower in disapproval from its perch on the shelf. Beneath, the couch exerts an irresistible gravitational pull. I launch myself across the corner of the coffee table and let slip the card from my grasp. It comes to nestle in the plush of the carpet. Relaxing into the comfort of domestic drunkenness, the environment undemanding enough to engender a dream of sobriety, I remember what I left behind in the pod. I also remember that I can’t, this time, pop back and get it. I snarl. Then I scan through some holostreams. I picture myself on the couch, the reconfiguring shapes flickering over the restless surface of my eyeballs as lids droop, droop. I click off a holostream of Boris Karloff and fantasise about a late night snack. Then I am at rest.
Having cushioned its descent from the shelf, the cat skitters off down the hall and out of the cat-flap. My viciously pumping heart begins a climb-down, gradually deescalating from threat level: imminent death. Then I feel sleep try to reclaim me, so I turn, get comfortable and let it.
As I pad towards my front door I cradle a lettuce-shedding kebab violin-like, against my clavicle. A pat down of major pockets reveals no keys. I hum a recent blues-style invention about a kebab shop man who took away my whiskey, after I let it go over the floor. I am startled by a skittling blur that I decipher as a high-speed version of exit the cat. The start initiates a series of movements that feel balletic but force me to prioritise the upright position of the kebab over my own. Leaning back against the door, I abandon my key hunt and begin to eat.
I am asleep on the couch. It takes a moment. I look down at my out-splayed fingers that have just let slip the pod door behind. I look down at the bottle falling from my noose of digits. My body convulses as a streak of cat flies past. And it isn’t so much that I kneel down, but find that I am kneeling. Trouser leg takes up a little of the spilt booze. The body on the couch snorts, shuffles onto its side and emits a reedy fart.
That body is mine.
I think I might be dying.
Perhaps this is what is feels like to be the other one; the one who doesn’t come back. Then I see the broken card on the carpet, next to the broken card on the carpet and it all becomes brutally clear.
—Wake up. I say it too quietly, like I’m saying it to myself.
—Wake up! The body scrambles. Its dribble-flecked face collapses into a mask of horror that I cannot help but reflect. It catches on.
‘Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck.’
It is when we hear the knock at the door that we are joined in purpose. We’d heard about what they do, the authorities, when this happens. One of us will be deleted; whichever one presents the clearest shot. My self-protective urge does not extend to my sleep-addled twin and I don’t like my odds, so I do what I have to do. I go to the kitchen and grab a knife. Then, between me and the body on the couch, the front door bangs open and in we walk.
It sees the knife, for sure. But the knife is probably the least shocking thing about the situation. It has recently fed itself—a halo of orange surrounds its mouth—and the contentment appears to have made it sedate.
“Uh, hey.” Closing the door slowly behind it. “We can work this out? You don’t need to do anything with, with that.”
It puts its hands up slowly and begins to walk towards me with what is probably murderous intent. As I’m thinking this, it makes a sudden lunge for the knife. I’m too slow to react but mid-lunge it makes a sort of crunching noise. Mouth falls open, eyes roll back and it falls to the floor. The other one is standing behind it with the heavy-based lamp raised over its shoulder. The lamp, I notice, remains lit. Some hair and flesh adhere to the brass. After a moment, it begins to spit disjointed plosives towards the pooling mess of blood. It’s clearly in shock. I guess I’m in shock too. We find our knees on either side of the felled body, our improvised weapons clutched in our hands. We begin to blubber to ourselves.
Then a trademarked popping sound rebounds about the lounge and our eyes lock in wild, wet-eyed terror. The other one leaps up and scampers down the hall. After a few feet the leash of electrical cord finds its limit and, as it pauses to wrap its free hand in the wire and yank it free from the socket, I clap a brotherly hand upon its shoulder and bury the knife deep in its back. The noise is inhuman. It thrashes. I buck upon the blade’s handle, whereupon the fatal damage is done. It falls forwards into the lounge. A lively arc of brilliant blood links me for a second to the simulacrum before it settles like crude graffiti over the carpet and walls. There is a fine mist over my face, over the small teeth in my mouth’s rictus. This is the first thing that the third copy sees as it blinks open drunken eyes. It shrieks—as well it might—and, as there is no handle on the inside of the glass door, cowers to wrap its fingers protectively under the bottom edge. I try to clear the blood that has settled on the surface of my eyeball as I stalk towards the pod.
The fingernails are bitten like mine. Desperate grip whitens them against the glass. Both eyes screwed tight. Breath unearthly with panic. It vomits a little down itself as I scrape the rubber sole of my shoe down the glass, peeling off the fingers of one hand and pinning them to the floor. ‘Please. Please.’ It pleads for my life. With more difficulty I squeak my other foot down, my toe leaving a streak of gore on the glass. When I am standing on most of the fingers, I find I am too close to open the door but when I step back it just reasserts its hold. We do this dance twice then I decide to smash the glass. Nothing will come of torturing it. I get it over quickly: a mineral sample from the sideboard and a knife in the neck. Glass and blood everywhere. I drag the inert glitch out by the collar and stare into the booth wondering if more will arrive, wondering whether they will keep arriving, wondering at the nature of the problem I am faced with. I rub my chin and stand back, tripping a little on a corpse, and then grim inspiration strikes. I carefully pick up a large shard of glass and wave it in the apparition space. By easing it behind the wires of the guitar I am able to improvise hands-free suspension. I feel an unexpected surge of satisfaction and then I begin to cry.
I step in turn over the bodies and wash my arms and face in the kitchen sink. I drink two glasses of water and resign myself to picking a trail back into the lounge. The cat glares defiantly from the doormat then stoops again to lap at a pool of blood. As I lean over it to secure the locks on the door, I notice my shoes squelch with unthinkable fluids. I examine the feet of my vanquished foe to find a replacement, eventually easing the cleanest copy of my trainers from the one who fell under the lamp, somehow relieved to be taking them from a corpse that isn’t one of mine.
Pop. The agonized howl that follows. The cat and I share a moment: my human eyes meeting the limpid eternity of its alert pupils. Then there’s just a space where the cat was. A pet door swinging wildly. A ripple settling in the blood. With a hoarse moan, a new me walks stiffly into the frame of the hallway as a silhouette of Frankenstein’s monster. The guitar neck protruding out of the torso scrapes along the wall, ringing inharmonic chords. Its mouth hole burbles up a bouquet of crimson foam. It dies on its feet, propped up on an unholy tripod of buckled legs and instrument. Then the guitar frame shudders, shrieks, and explodes into shards. It’s dramatic, even after the previous scenes. I resolve two things. To creep around the body, fearing that this style of demise bodes a reanimation sequence, but mainly to find a more humane way to deal with further ghosts in the machine. And that is how I find myself sitting nervously on the edge sofa, a sharpened mop handle laid across my knees, waiting for the next apparition.
I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting, but the sky is softening towards dawn. Sleep surprised me, overpowering the vigilance of a mortal soul readied in ambush. When I wake, I am alone. The blood has dried on the outer layers of my garments, but is still sticky where it has soaked beneath. Tired as I am, I consider cleaning the flat. I will have lugged a steaming bucket full of watered-down bleach to the middle of the floor and begun pulling a stiffening body towards the pod when it goes ‘pop’.
I can barely find it in myself to tachycardia. I let go of the corpse’s armpits but it stays put, as if poised mid-picnic. A foot treads cautiously out of the pod, crunching into the glass. Dead-looking eyes, wreathed in sleeplessness, take in the scene. It doesn’t scream. It is surprised though, I’ll bet.
‘My, oh my.’
—A little help? We look at the dead. Beneath the pale face of sit-up-and-beg a gash yawns. Its coat and hair stippled with diamanté chips of glass. Then we look at the sharpened handle that has been re-screwed into the mop head. I slowly push the bucket away with my foot. Clear my throat.
—A little help? We take an armpit each and heft the dead weight into the pod. We ascertain that neither of us has a working card, but my exhausted-looking companion produces a temporary Embassy pass. We mash the key-pad and the dead meat evaporates into thin air. The memory of it doesn’t.
We don’t say much as we heave the other bodies one by one into the booth. It wretches as we roll over Frankenstein and eyes me reproachfully? Warily? I can’t tell. When the bodies have gone it’s apparent that there is still a lot of work to be done and, with it, some sharing. I try not to think about what will happen after that.
‘What happened here?’
—What happened there? I am swishing a cloth in the pinking bucket of bleach between us. The blood is coming off the wall better that I had hoped.
‘My card broke in Tokyo.’
—I know that. I mean, we were both… It isn’t a sentence I consider ending.
‘Then you know we tried it in a few pods as we made our way towards the Embassy.’
—No. I don’t think I know we went to the Embassy. I might have been here already. I don’t know. I was drunk. Look, how many times did you try the card?
‘I was drunk.’
—We need to know if I got them all. The son of a bitch actually winces. It could have been the murder, sure, but I think it was the plural. It drops a gory rag into the steaming slop and leans back on its haunches, tired of me.
‘I tried here. I tried the public pod on the street. I tried here a couple of times more. Then I sent one to’ it pauses, only to continue a half-octave lower ‘our mother’s.’
And then there were three. And that changed everything.
It was mid-morning by the time the flat was clean—glass swept up, blood shampooed out of the carpet, a new door delivered PodEx Express and fixed into the hinges. Then we were sat on the couch, neither of us fresh-looking, cradling steaming mugs of tea that we had been cautious enough to make for ourselves. It had its knees pulled up under its chin. There was a hole in the toe of its sock where there was not one in mine. We had come to what was the only sane conclusion: that neither of us could live. An hour or so later it’s sat in the booth with a knife and I think I should give it a little privacy so I go into the kitchen and wait. I give it a good ten minutes but when I go back it’s just sat there weeping. The knife balanced carefully atop its knees, catching its reflection and occasional tears. It’s selfish, what it’s doing, but I think I know how it feels. I pad over, watching the thin material on my sock-toe break and fray. When I take the knife it looks up. It looks broken-up: broken by Tokyo travail; broken by sleeplessness; broken by the god-awful scene it came home to; broken by the sight of me taking up the knife and plunging into its heart. And I know how it feels. I know just how it feels.
And so I find myself standing on the edge of the bridge. A chill wind blows. I drop my coat to feel it against my skin for a glorious moment: a sharp pain of air. I take a deep breath and leap clear of the vertiginous ledge destined for the cold, cold waters beyond.
Excerpted from ‘A Hypocritical Reader’ by Rosie Šnajdr, published in 2018 by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Republished with permission of the publisher.
Image by Rachel.