This story was inspired by a conversation I had with my good friend Missie. The conversation was basically about preventing indolence via robotic companions that would persuade one to do whatever it was that one was not doing. I claimed that mine would be a robot with whips for hands. So, The Government Tower was born. I had considered making it much longer, but I’m not certain that it needs to be. Actually, I think that if it was much longer, it would fade into redundancy.
One thing you will note in this story is that it seems very personal; it is a reflection of my feelings as an artist working in an age that doesn’t always appreciate art, especially if that art comes in a written form. Sometimes it feels like you need to shoehorn something that is special to you just so that it fits into one or another market. An editor will say (not in these specific words) “I like this or that, but you need to change everything that makes it unique.” Personally, I’d rather not make a dime than change a story based on making it more saleable. Maybe that’s why I’m on the fringe. 🙂
And yes, I left the ending that way for the enjoyment of the readers. You’ll see what I mean when you get there.
Another Icarus had gone by. Plummeting to the concrete ocean miles below, I could hear his scream come and go like a passing train. Out of morbid curiosity, I rushed to my window to watch him fall. I looked out at the clouds and craned my head out the window. There was no glass in the government tower, nor were there bars. The Icarus hit the building, leaving a short bloody trail before he came away from the building again, flailing limply. He shrank out of sight, and soon I couldn’t even hear his screaming. I returned to my desk and stared at the type writer; it was old and the letter ‘e’ would stick more often than not. I looked at the door to my cell and wondered when it would come.
I am Quinn, and I am a writer. However, as is typical, my work did not coincide with what society wanted. When I dropped out of college, I started living at The Fringe of the World, an apartment complex and bohemian paradise. Artists, actors, writers, musicians, and philosophers of every stripe were there. We were a community of people outcast by the working class and by the nobility. We were the tinder and fuel of a bonfire of creativity. Too frivolous to be workers and not serious enough to be nobles, the bohemians were both literally and figuratively on the fringe. As an uncontrolled creative force, it was not long before the government decided that it didn’t want us anymore. It started with a single government funded art show.
Government funded art had no soul, but the workers and nobles loved it. I remember one painting I saw at the first government art show: it was a zaftig woman wearing overalls that were too large for her. The apron front draped in such a way that there was a tantalizing peek of her bosom. She hefted a large mallet over her shoulder, and stood on a pile of rubble amidst a background torn by war. I remembered thinking that she looked as much like a man as a woman; her breasts were all that made her truly feminine. That was how government art always was; it was made to appeal to both men and women, both the rich and the poor. Every painting, every sculpture, every photograph had to speak to the entirety of the social order. It seemed to me that the goal was to entertain rather than inspire. It was then that I decided that I disliked the Government.
Years later, when I was arrested, I was with a group of bohemians outside of a Government art show at the Metropolitan Museum. We were camped out on the steps, selling our wares and performing a few one act plays. Most people just walked by us, ignoring our work. Some would watch a dancer and yell for her to strip; others would try to haggle the price down to nickels for limited edition books, hand bound by the author. Then, as swiftly as a summer’s rain, the police were there. They were on us like a flood, washing away all evidence of our presence. They collected our work and used it as evidence against us in the trials that would follow. That is how I came to be in the Government Tower.
The Government Tower is the tallest building in a city of tall buildings. It stands alone on a plot of land central to the rest of the city, like a long length of spear jutting out of a beast’s back. The tower is miles high, and most of the cells are on the highest floors. “The prisoners are free to leave at any time,” I heard the warden joke once, and it was true. We were free to leave, but we would have to go out the windows. A fly would probably slide down the sheer sides of the Government Tower, so climbing down is a hopeless endeavor. That is why I called the ones that fall by my window “Icarus.” I like to fancy that they thought they could fly, but they broke their wings. I don’t want to think that life could become so bleak that a leap was the only solution. There was another way out of the Government Tower: reform. That is where It comes in.
It comes to each room once each day. It takes your work for the day, and looks it over. If the work is judged as appropriate, the prisoner is moved to a lower cell. If the work is not, then It administers punishment. The first time It looked at one of my works, I was trembling with fear. Its red eyes scanned the pages, evaluating the story I wrote. I had written something about a boy and his dog; it was touching and slightly melodramatic. I had hoped that it had a flavour that would please the government’s palette. It simply stored the sheets in his chest, and then, after a second a whirring rose. A clash of sprockets sounded as gears grinded to life; a snake-like leather whip emerged from It’s wrist. With a deft, sudden motion, the leather snapped a thin strip of flesh off my hand with a crack.
It turned without a word, and walked away, locking the cell door behind himself. I think of It as masculine. Perhaps it is because of the way the robot was crafted: wide shoulders and narrow hips gave It the appearance of strength. Blood stained iron was It’s skin; the head was wide and flat, resting on an unperceivable neck that hid within a tall collar. It was impressive, and frightening.
I considered the story again and rewrote it. I checked the grammar, spelling and punctuation carefully. Again It appeared and again I felt the brutal crack of its whip. For weeks I produced work; comedy, drama, horror, love stories and more. Each was read by the robot, accepted, and then the machine’s whips came to life, snapping through the air with grace and precision. Finally came the day that I stood on my window sill. I interrogated myself passionately, wondering where I went wrong. Was the plot too vapid? The characters too complex? Why couldn’t I get it right?
I looked down at the long fall and imagined how easily I could end my torment. A single step was all it would take. The wind whipped around me as I stood there considering my fate. The door opened and It entered. The robot stood ready to receive my work but I had none to give. Its iron talons crunched down on my wrist as it pulled me from the window sill and dragged me from the room. I kicked at the robot and grasped at the walls as it pulled me along. Down one flight of stairs we went, and into a cell I was tossed. It had been nearly six months, but I was one step closer to freedom.
I thought I had figured out the rehabilitation. It wasn’t meant to make me write the right thing, rather it was meant to break me of the habit all together. When It came again, I stood proudly with my hand extended. I had not written again. The mechanized beast grabbed hold of my hand and twisted it painfully, bringing me to my knees. I looked up at It’s emotionless eyes and felt tears welling out of my own. I had thought I figured it out, and my broken fingers proved otherwise. My hand swelled and pulsed pink. I could barely sleep due to the pain. I fell into and out of dreams and upon awaking I struggled to my type writer.
My fingers waltzed clumsily, like a drunken couple, over the keys. I wrote about my dreams and my pain; I poured my emotions out onto the paper and prayed that it would lead to my reprieve. I wrote a simple story:
“Jaime met a friend. The friend and Jaime hadn’t seen each other in quite a long time. Jaime was happy to see the friend, and Jaime was surprised to hear that the friend was to be married. Jaime had become sad, for Jaime did not want to lose the dear friend. Jaime pleaded for the friend not to marry, as the marriage would destroy him. The friend disagreed. The friend said that marriage was going to complete the life the friend always wanted. Jaime cried as the friend left. Jaime cried and wouldn’t stop crying even if his body dried out.” I read and re-read the paragraph, and then I heard It coming from afar. It’s heavy iron feet plodded, maybe seven cells away. Depending on what happened, I might have had time to change the story. I read it again and I tore it to shreds. I sat back down at my typewriter and furiously wrote my story. I needed an hour, not minutes. I started to type fervently, each paragraph punctuated with It’s heavy footfalls. I considered all I had created in my months in the Government Tower. A hundred lives, maybe a thousand, and all were quelled because of the Government’s guidelines. I had a choice: I could keep trying to please the Government, or I could be true to myself.
I will fold this story, and I shall take it with me. Perhaps it will give me the wings to fly out of this prison. If not, at least I will have created something I could take true pride in. I have led a life blessed by my muse, but to be true to her, I have only one course of action to take.