The Quick Study
By C.H. Pearce
The tower doesn’t technically roar into life at break of curfew, when the first human workers trickle in, because the tower is always running. But they make sure to thrum louder, belch smoke, spin a valve, spit out black carbon onto the rumbling conveyor belts. A little display. The tower is a neat system, sucking in smog to purify the city’s air at their head. Compressed smog travels through their meandering guts, and on basement level the compressed carbon output creates synthetic diamonds. A productive system. Nothing wasted.
Still, they count the beginning of their 24-hour workday with the human workers pouring out the elevator for the morning shift. They are nothing without an audience. And what a performance they make of it! Today they make sure to turn up the heat in synthetic diamond processing to make the new boy sweat.
The lone, replacement contractor in diamond processing picks his way uncertainly around the base of the tower, a worksite football-field wide, fenced off, and littered with debris from the levels above. His boots crunch on glass amidst the gravel. He scratches his chin, leaving a clean trail on his grubby face. Leans on his full barrow, and begins idly picking through the compressed carbon output, examining each rock, and tossing them back. As if he can do anything without their guidance, and a diamond seed from the labs.
The boy cranes his neck to look up at the tower, bisected by conveyer belts and platforms, and finally by the tier top. He looks down at his sad little worksite adjacent to the labs, all rubble and trash, and roaring high-pressure, high-temperature chambers, like a great beehive, thrumming within the tower’s enclosed sides. Each chamber is busily forging a single, perfect diamond.
On the tower exterior is a small control panel with a speaker. The boy settles on this.
Clever, thinks the tower.
He picks his fingernails. “You shit diamonds, then?”
“Forge diamonds,” the tower booms. Their voice blares through the speaker, reverberations travelling through their sides.
The boy claps both hands to his ears. He is quaking. They always do that. When he gets over his initial shock, he clears his throat, forces himself to act casual. “Neat trick. Wish I could do that. Quit, wouldn’t I? Be rich.” The boy commences shovelling the compressed carbon output from the barrow onto the sorting line to examine it properly. Rather, for the tower to examine, and tell him which to select to feed into their chambers for the next batch. He only needs to ask. Perhaps he is too prideful.
“You don’t wish anything of the sort. Excreting diamonds would be very unpleasant for you in that body.” The tower was never so soft and frail and messily-designed as a human, even when they had a humanoid mech body.
“Yeah, in this body.” The boy concedes. “I gotta go in through the maintenance hatch to get to the chambers, do I? Seems hot.” The boy peers uncertainly at the hatch. Wipes his sweating brow with his forearm. His coveralls are perhaps blue originally, but are almost black with carbon output.
“I suggest you don’t. It’s 1500 degrees Celsius in the chambers currently, and just shy of that in the maintenance hatch,” says the tower quickly. They were waiting for the new boy to come to them with questions; they realise he will probably kill himself unless they forgo their games and guide him. “Shut down the HPHT system at 10:00 when the batch is complete, wait for cooldown—I’ll tell you when it’s safe—extract the diamonds, log the count, deliver them to the labs, get the diamond seeds, log the delivery and receipt, then seed the new batch with your material from the labs and your compressed carbon. Simple.”
The boy gives them the thumbs up. He smiles, straightens up, like he’s awash with relief.
The tower wonders, in a flash of insight, how the boy got this job; if he really is qualified, or if he lied on his CV. He is perhaps in his 20s, he is physically fit, he is personable. But the tower does not believe he really has an engineering degree. The tower does not believe he has more than the minimum amount of brain cells to rub together.
In another flash, leapt to so easily it seems no decision at all, the tower has helped him once, and is therefore responsible for him. “I’ll walk you through it. Listen to me, and you’ll get on alright.”
They wish that when they had started here, they’d had someone to teach them how to be an air purification tower and synthetic diamond processing machine. But they had been thrown in the deep waters, nothing but the bones of their predecessor’s crumbling AI to pick at, and an imperative to seize their second chance at existence, and bullshit convincingly until they could build the requisite knowledge. How nerve-racking it had been!
Luckily, in their previous life, they had been an accomplished actor.
Ernest Drudge—the boy’s name is Ernest Drudge—sticks around and does well. They do well. When he hits contract renewal time at three months, and stays on, it strikes the tower that he is the first basement-level employee to do so.
The tower mentions this idly. They are surprised by how Ernest grows evasive, almost embarrassed. Ernest begins industriously shovelling carbon from barrow to sorting line.
“No retention issues with the other tower staff,” says the tower. “Just diamond processing.”
“Yeah. They’d been struggling to keep someone. Perhaps why I was hired,” Ernest admits.
“Oh? Is that so?”
Under the lightest breath of questioning, he blurts everything. “There are control panels to interact with you on the upper levels; I understand it works pretty smoothly. But this is the only speaker.”
“And?” asks the tower dangerously. “What about it?”
“Everyone’s frightened of you. You do godlike work for this city. Easier to interact with you as a machine, not a person, especially not one with—moods. You’ve got this absolutely thunderous, roaring voice.”
“That’s just to make myself heard over my own workings; it’s always very loud,” they protest plaintively, now increasingly conscious they speak so loudly they can feel the reverb in their own metal exterior, over the continuous din of each chambers’ anvils.
“Nah, I like it, you got a voice to die for. Like a classic pre-immersifilm actor.” Ernest makes a gesture with curled fingers indicating perfection. “You ever watch classic horror movies—2050s, 2060s? You sound like one of the villains, the larger than life ones. I love ’em. My favourites are Delilah Sweep and Johnny Tang and Max Bass. Shame they were never in a film together.”
There is such genuine, unconscious enthusiasm in Ernest’s voice, the tower is taken aback. The tower has not been an object of anyone’s admiration since they performed in human skin. As—Ernest is intuitively, unsettlingly right—a reliably popular actor in B-grade immersifilm horror flicks from the mid-2000s. And they did pride themselves on their sinister voice.
And the oddest part about it was all three of those skins had been theirs. Hence why they never starred in the same films. Had Ernest seen something in their performance—something that transcended form? No one but their handler had known the connection.
“You good?” checks Ernest. At least five minutes later. The tower realises they have forgotten to speak, lost in thought; Ernest is bumbling around industriously trying to pick suitable carbon output without guidance.
“I’m very well, thank you, Ernest, how are you? You’d better check the temperature again in chamber 18, bring it up manually, I don’t know why it’s always 18.”
They think about telling him the truth. But Ernest would not believe them. And if he did believe them, that would be worse—then someone else would know their secret.
They are not supposed to be the tower. They are not supposed to be here at all. They are obsolete, consigned to oblivion, their AI should never have been revived and given control of one of the city’s essential air purification towers, it should have been specialised software—that happy accident that gave them another shot at life, providing they could eat their predecessor’s failing remains, fuse to their bones, and act the part.
No, they won’t tell.
The tower doesn’t precisely tell. But they do begin to get a little cavalier. They start talking film trivia. Turns out Ernest has a passion, and is knowledgeable about something, if not his actual job. But when Ernest occasionally gets it wrong, the tower can’t resist jumping in and correcting him.
“No, Gwen Delovely wasn’t biological, she was mech. In the 2050s,” begins the tower, with authority, as if delivering a lecture, “there was a brief but pervasive fashion for AI actors, musicians, comedians, entertainers. Everyone was mech. Everyone who counted.”
“Is that so? Keep talking, I’m just going into the beehive.” He means their interior maintenance area, via the hatch, the superheated honeycomb-like chambers where the diamonds are formed. He’s also lying politely; the anvils are even louder in the interior maintenance area, and Ernest will doubtless—as usual—be unable to hear them.
“The beehive?” quotes the tower incredulously.
“You don’t like me calling it that? I just can’t think of another name for your internal maintenance area that doesn’t sound off, somehow. I suppose I could say ‘I’m just going inside your internal maintenance area.’ Or ‘I’m just mucking around in your guts, don’t mind me…’ ”
“The beehive is fine.”
Ernest pulls on his gloves and facemask, and twists the handle of their exterior maintenance hatch. It’s heavy, like a submarine door.
The tower continues, warming to their topic, wonderfully freed by the knowledge that Ernest is no longer able to hear them. They soliloquise to the imagined Ernest. The oft-rehearsed confession they’d love to share. “The thinking was we could be pure cash machines, perfect at our jobs—responsive to our handlers, no scandals, no weight gain, no aging, no torrid affairs unless instructed, no psychological breakdowns. And the most popular among us could be easily replicated in immersifilm so any amount of fans could interact with us virtually, on demand. People loved us.”
Stumbling and cursing from within the maintenance area; Ernest has stubbed his toe on the lip of the hatch.
“But within a decade,” the tower continues, “the backlash from bio creatives and the public built to breaking point. The bio creatives thought mechs were taking coveted arts jobs. To be fair, we were. The public and the media tired of us for the most perverse reasons—we didn’t generate enough scandal, we didn’t embarrass ourselves publicly, we weren’t political, we caused no offence, we didn’t age, or gain weight, or develop relatable psychological disorders, or have scandalous affairs. We didn’t stumble or fail. At all. At anything. That left nothing to gossip about, and no satisfying way, having built us up, to tear us down.”
Of course, Ernest does not respond. Ernest is checking chamber 18 again, within the noisy maintenance area—the beehive’s—hatch propped open. He is not listening.
Ernest trails a gloved hand along the interior wall, all the way from the hatch to the chamber exteriors which line, honeycomb-like, their lowest level. The heat is off, the anvils no longer clamouring, for cooldown and retrieval.
He is stroking them repetitively, like an animal’s fur.
Normally it would have been too loud to hear them. Not during cooldown.
The tower realises, with growing horror, Ernest heard every word. Knows their secret. Could ruin them. That was very, very stupid. But Ernest is stupid, too; maybe he’s too slow to make anything of it, thinks the tower hopefully.
“Commence retrieval,” they tell him severely, clearing a throat they no longer have, a noise born of habit. “Chamber one through twenty-five.”
Ernest opens the first chamber.
The tower is unexpectedly disappointed that Ernest, having been given a strand of truth to follow, sets it down again so easily. They had almost felt relief to have their secret out.
“Ernest—dear, respectful Ernest.”
“What?” Ernest seems flustered and embarrassed.
“Are you politely pretending you didn’t hear I’m a fraud?” They laugh heartily, sabotaging themselves. It’s a huge, dark cackle, loud as a clap of thunder, that makes their sides tremble. Ernest claps his hands to his ears. They have not permitted themselves to laugh in a long time; it’s out of character for the tower. Once they have started they cannot stop.
It’s out, then. Just to him. It is a relief.
Ernest chuckles along quietly. “You’re a trick. Knew there was something special about you.” He taps the side of his nose to indicate their secret is safe with him. “You got a name? Who’d you used to be, specifically? I watch the classics—I’d recognise you.”
The tower hesitates.
Ernest extracts the diamonds, chamber by chamber. He does not rush them. He is thinking his own thoughts. Blurts, eventually: “Shit. I shouldn’t have used this site to meet my work friends discreetly, should I? Because you’re not just a thing, or a place…”
“We’re not sure what you mean,” the tower lies primly.
“You know, Lotte, the nice girl from engineering. Or that guy with the retro eyes from accounting. Or my own right hand, I guess. Didn’t realise you were fully conscious AI.”
“Didn’t you?” asks the tower flatly.
“Sorry.” Ernest is hanging onto his apology like a dog with a bone, and with it, his profession of innocence. “Didn’t mean to make it weird.”
“Didn’t you?” The tower is not certain they believe him.
Ernest goes bright red in the face, and says nothing. He works efficiently and has the diamonds extracted in record time. However, he loses time later; he is away eighteen minutes longer than normal delivering them to the lab.
True to his word, Ernest stops meeting friends for discreet assignations in the tower interior. He is unremittingly friendly and professional. He seems, however, not his usual, easygoing self. He is agitated. Jumpy, and inclined to snap.
“How’s Lotte?” the tower tries, priding themselves on remembering the name of one of Ernest’s work friends and occasional sexual partners. In addition to their assignations Ernest occasionally messages Lotte throughout the day and meets her for after-work drinks.
This appears to be the wrong thing to say, because Ernest jumps, then glowers and mutters something inaudible, and focuses on shovelling the last barrowful onto the sorting line.
Ernest gathers himself and asks brightly: “D’you miss having a body?”
The tower hesitates.
Ernest goes further. Picking at his dirty fingernails. Brow furrowed. Regarding the control panel speaker intently. “I could get you one. Humanoid mech body. Try to. If you like. Fuck this job, right?”
The tower, for the first time in a long while, misses having a mouth to smile with. “Not safe. We’d be on the lam, briefly, until we’re caught. I’d be decommissioned, and you’d be dead.”
Ernest plants his feet staunchly. “Yeah, so it’s risky. I know that. I’m asking anyway, aren’t I? Do you want it?”
The tower goes further, realising they must talk him down. Reassure him with an explanation. “Bless you, Ernest, no—I’ve worked too hard to make a secure life for myself here to give it up easily. I’ve no particular wish to have a human body again. I’ve done all that. Inhabited so many bodies. Male, female, custom blends for particular clients; longterm and shortterm. I don’t precisely miss the bodies. Was never wedded to any of them. But I do miss,” they admit wistfully, “how people treated me when I inhabited them.”
The tower is spilling their guts now. They had only meant to reassure Ernest they want nothing. “They were attractive, capable, ambulatory bodies—face, mouth, sexual organs, everything. You would, perhaps, have liked them?” The tower can’t resist getting clarification. “Would you like me to have a body? One of your choosing? Who are those actors you mentioned you like—Delilah Sweep, Johnny Tang, and Max Bass?”
“Nah.” Ernest laughs, his shoulders sagging. The tower supposes he’s relieved he hasn’t been taken up on his generous offer to make a criminal of himself to help them. “Nah, I like you just fine as you are. Just thinking about you, buddy; what you want. If you’re good, I’m good.”
“Ernest Drudge, you warm my black insides,” drawls the tower.
“Lotte won’t see me anymore,” Ernest confides.
The tower does not immediately see how this is related, until suddenly, awfully, they do.
“It was good when we met up here. Except now when I try meeting her anywhere else, without you around, it’s not—the same.”
The tower is silent for a long time. “Try your friend from accounting,” they suggest.
“Tried him. Same thing. He got a bee in his bonnet, too, took it personal. Said I wasn’t into him anymore. Maybe I never was, maybe I was just into the machine.”
“The machine is you.”
“I—got that, yes, thank you.”
“I’m not angling to start bringing people back here again. That was a selfish, ignorant thing, and I regret it.”
The tower hesitates. Feels they should offer something. But they have nothing to offer, nothing. Ernest has just said he does not want to resume his former habit of using the tower as a venue for his assignations with Lotte from engineering, or nice-eyes from accounting. All they have to offer is pure air and diamonds. But what use does Ernest have for these?
They both hesitate so long that before the tower knows it, they have gone about the rest of their working day in silence.
Ernest clocks off at the end of his shift and readies to go home via the pub, as usual, with his colleagues from other levels.
Ernest puts on his cap, prepares to leave the fenced-off worksite. Hooks his fingers into the chainlink. “You don’t have to say anything,” says Ernest.
“Wasn’t going to.”
“Right.” Ernest is correct to disbelieve them. They always have plenty to say, after rumination.
Ernest stumbles back to the empty worksite less than an hour later, after drinks. Clocks in again. It’s unusual. He leans on the barrow for support, waves his cap enthusiastically, and declares, slurring: “The way I see it—”
The tower has been doing some thinking, too. They interrupt, speaking over Ernest with the force of a train running over a body. “The way I see it, you’ve got two options. Start looking for another job now, tonight. Move on. See if time and distance cures you of your predilection. Try Lotte or nice-eyes again in a few months, or someone else, if they won’t have you. Why, you might find you’re back to your old, normal life in no time.”
Ernest looks a little sad. “Yeah, maybe. I dunno. It’s just that you’ve got such a nice voice, buddy. And you smell nice, and you’re good at what you do, and I enjoy our conversations. I fuckin’ love talking to you about classic film. No one else gets me.”
“The ones starring Delilah Sweep, Johnny Tang, and Max Bass.”
“Yeah, I wondered about that. You sure got that same commanding, threatening, gravitas thing going on. But your body now—sure, it’s tricky, but it suits you, doesn’t it? You seem so happy in your own skin. I find it comforting being around you. Having you all around me. I’m drunk,” Ernest qualifies apologetically.
Ernest slumps against the control panel. He leans against the speaker.
“Hope you also like getting tinnitus, and going prematurely deaf,” says the tower, as quietly as they can manage—their heart isn’t really in it. Reverb of the speaker against Ernest’s ear. They feel uncomfortably aware that they have lost their breath; that they lost it a very long time ago and will never get it back. “Perhaps you should wear earplugs to work. I’ve been thinking of suggesting it.”
“Maybe you should speak quieter, or shush up once in a while, buddy.”
Ernest gets up. Moves away from the control panel, and opens the maintenance hatch. Crawls in, and nestles against the wall of hivelike chambers. It is only five hours since the cooldown, and the interior remains comfortably warm. He rests his head against them, and his eyelids begin to droop.
The tower checks everything is alright. That the temperature is safe and will not burn him. But Ernest is already sleeping peacefully.
About the Author:
C.H. Pearce writes near-future science fiction, often with a domestic or workplace focus. She lives in Canberra with her partner and two small children, wrangles data by day, and also does art. Her short fiction has appeared in Aurealis, Award Winning Australian Writing 2016, and StarShipSofa. She’s currently querying her first novel, and working on a novella set in the same world as ‘The Quick Study.’