Sunday, 7 October 2012

These traitorous hands

Clytie, short for Clytemnestra because her father preferred to read about ancient Greek history to just about everything else, shouted up from the street below.  It was a little hard to hear what she was saying because there were car-horns blaring, some of them sounding quite frantic, and sirens were beginning to become audible in the distance.  Xoggie, short for Xogenes which name his mother refused to explain, thought about ignoring her while he cleaned his paintbrushes.  He dipped them into the small, smeared jar of white spirit and methodically squeezed the liquid and paint residue from the bristles with a scrap of paper towel, until he could no longer hear the drip-drip-drip of the liquid back into the jar.  Then he sighed, a heavy, melodramatic sigh that lifted his whole chest up and let it fall again, reminding him that he'd gained yet more weight, and walked to the window.
The sky outside was blue with scraps of white cloud scudding across on whatever urgent missions clouds have, and the pavement, a broad pedestrian walkway put in as a traffic-calming measure two years ago, was clear and clean.  The planters, containing small evergreen trees were mostly upright, only one having been tipped over by drunks from one of the eight nearby pubs, and little soil had escaped this time.  The road – the road was blocked with stopped traffic, and it sounded like all of the cars were now wailing their horns.  Xoggie couldn't see into any of the cars, the sun was behind him and low enough to bounce off their windows blinding him when he tried to look, but it looked like a voluntary stoppage.  And there, out of the road but very visible from it, was Clytie, holding a small man in a soiled suit by the neck, looking rather red-faced and embarrassed.
Xoggie waved, and to his surprise and slight horror she waved back.  Using the hand holding the small man, who swung worryingly at the shoulders as though his neck might rip and his penduluming body would fall to the pavement.  She shouted something, but he couldn't hear her over the noise, so he started to sigh again, thought better of it, and went downstairs to let her in.
"What's going on?" he shouted in the hallway, where even with the front door closed the traffic noise was unpleasantly loud.  He led the way through the back kitchen into his sculptor's conservatory and closed another set of doors behind Clytie, which thankfully dulled the noise to a distant hubbub.  He sat down on the twisty-stool he used when throwing pottery, and Clytie remained standing, while the man she was clutching continued to slowly strangle.
"I don't know," she said, a hint of a girlish giggle in her voice.  "It my hands, I think they've gone wrong."
Xoggie looked at her hands, which were elaborate metal contraptions that she'd had replace her own hands a couple of years earlier.  She'd replaced them one at a time, to give herself a chance to get used to the idea of vastly increased power and speed, and then she'd had them upgraded a little here and there, first weaponising the fingers with blades and electricity; then going from relatively human hands to much more obviously abhuman hands.  She now had eighteen fingers on hands that were outsized for her arms, all done in black, silver and brass that was an artistic statement by itself.  There were at least two artificial intelligences in each hand that consulted on actions, although they were supposed to be subservient to Clytie's own entirely natural intelligence.
"Won't they obey you?" he asked, rememebering a time a little while back when she'd not gotten used to her new strength and had put her hand through his front door.
"They're feeding back to me, they're saying that I don't understand the importance of this," she said.  "They say it's very important that this man is not allowed to talk to someone, but I can't work out who this someone is.  I think perhaps they don't know this someone's name."
"Can't you just turn them off?"  Xoggie had spent days trying to convince Clytie to get an override switch installed that would cut the power to the hands in emergencies.  This, he felt, was just such an emergency.  She had the grace to look guilty.
"No," she said, and clearly had no intention of explaining herself.
"Well," said Xoggie, leaning on his potter's wheel while he inspected the man who was looking bluer and bluer, "who is he?"
"He was coming out of the Unsantiago Gallery," she said.  "I was walking past, wondering what you were exhibiting this week, when he came out of the gallery and my hand just grabbed hold of him."
"By the neck?"
"No, not at first.  They... I?... no, they – grabbed his arm, pulled him close, then grabbed his neck and lifted him off the ground.  I've been trying to work out what to do next."
"I'm not exhibiting at the Unsantiago gallery," said Xoggie thoughtfully.  "I'm exhibiting at the Colostreum this month.  So it's probably not me he's not supposed to talk to."
"Why would this be about you?"
"It's not.  It means that your hands can probably stop squeezing the life out of this guy while I find out from him what he's doing and then we'll know what's going on."
"Hmm.  If you say so."
Clytie's face relaxed a little, smoothing out in a surgically maintained death-mask of beautiful perfection while she talked to the AIs that ran her hands for her.  Xoggie watched, growing increasingly aware that the little man had soiled his suit recently, and then finally she reanimated and her hand relaxed its grip enough for him to suck air into his lungs again in reasonable quantities.  While he gasped, Xoggie dug around for a pencil and paper to make notes on.  Whatever Clytie had got herself into this time, it looked like trouble.

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