Renewing the Soul
At some point in time during the experiments, the seasons ceased to exist for Dr. Daniel Schreber. The calendars moved on, and the city's inhabitants - the subjects, as the Strangers called them - recognized the dates even if the weather never changed. It was, he supposed, easier to ignore than the lack of sunshine.
Schreber's internal clock, still somehow used to twenty four hours - half night, half day - was obliterated, smashed to smithereens by a world where it was always dark, where the huge green clock that was the heartbeat of the city never struck noon, and always midnight. It made it rather difficult to function, sometimes, as his body attempted to cling to the schedule that felt natural. More than once he was forced to curl up in the corner of his underground lab, wrapped in his coat with his hat over his eyes, giving in to sleep before he made a serious mistake with the memories. The silent one that helped him - what was its name? Mr. Heart? thankfully let him be, waking him after a time to continue his work. It was one of the few niceties they showed him, and he was strangely grateful for it. Perhaps they recognized human limitations after all, at least a little.
The constant night was never changing, and it added to the strangely numb feeling of timelessness that was so disorienting to him. It never rained - there was no plants in their eternally changing city of concrete, so why did it matter? The Strangers hated the moisture, so there was none - just the never ending stillness of pre-dawn. The only moisture was the occasional fog seeped from the river and through the city streets, curling around the buildings almost eerily, like the tendrils of a giant sea creature. The air was always heavy and slightly chilly, a cold slowly seeped into his bones as he worked, making his bad leg ache no matter what precautions he took. His one luxury was his small apartment with central heating, the one tiny corner of the city that mercifully was allowed to stay the same through the Stranger's tuning.
It was almost by fluke that he found the bath house, one night before the Tuning as he made his way through the city streets to rendezvous with his captors. A door opened in front of him and a group of men filed out - laughing, talking, unaware of the twisted nature of the world they walked in. Normally he would pay them no heed - he spoke little with the subjects, it was too disconcerting when he knew that their entire existence was a lie - but what caught his attention was the heat. They were flushed and laughing, hair wet, and the air that had escaped the building after them was warm and moist and inviting.
Schreber paused by the side of the building, torn between investigating the discovery and the need to get to his destination in time to finish his work before the night's tuning. He checked his pocket watch, closing the cover with an audible click before slipping it back into his pocket. He'd have enough time, if he hurried. Grabbing the handle of the door the men had just come through, he pulled open the door and stepped inside.
There was an older man behind a small admittance desk, dark hair peppered with gray. He was reading a book, but glanced up as he entered. "Sorry, no admittance to the bath house after 10:30. We close soon."
Bath house? Schreber felt his lips part at the thought of a long soak in hot water, and the delirious pleasure of heat to soothe his aching leg. Not to mention how good it would feel to let his damaged lungs breathe in the warm moisture. He wasn't surprised that the place would close at eleven. It would be very unfortunate for one of the subjects to fall asleep in the pool during the Tuning. But what were the chances that this would even be here tomorrow? "Ah - of course," he replied to the admittance clerk, forcing himself to smile before reluctantly stepping back out into the night.
He was caught up in his thoughts as he continued towards his destination, and it wasn't until he passed a bakery store owner who was carefully tacking up Christmas lights around the front windows of his store that Schreber's mind suddenly sorted through months of disorientation to catch up with itself. He hurried into the bakery just to check the calender that he could see hanging behind the till, the days that had passed carefully crossed off with thick black lines. "... oh, no."
"Forget someone?" The baker had followed him inside, a tall man with dark curly hair.
Schreber stared at him for a moment, startled at being spoken to. "I'm sorry?"
"Christmas shopping," the man supplied, moving back behind the counter. "You still have a couple of days."
"Ah - no, I just... Yes." He gave a soft sigh, not sure why he was continuing the conversation. "Quite a few, I am afraid. I'm sorry, I - didn't mean to trouble you - I just - your calendar..."
"It's no trouble. It sounds like you have your work cut out for you." The baker had taken an individual egg pie from the racks behind the counter, packing it into a small box. "Take this, you'll need it. No charge."
The unexpected kindness was more foreign to him than the conversation, and he stared at the man in amazement. "I couldn't..."
The baker smiled, green eyes merry, and rounded the counter to press it into his hands. "I insist. Merry Christmas, and good luck."
Luck. He was certainly going to need that. He managed to thank the man, and hurried back into the night.
When he reached the entrance at the end of the alleyway, the door was already tuned and waiting for him, which was never a good sign. He hurried through and into the lift that was waiting beyond, manned by a Stranger that had become far too familiar to him over the course of the past months.
"Doctor. You are late, yes?"
"Mr - Hand. I apologize, I just - there was an oversight, with the plans. I needed to - investigate it..."
The lift started immediately, and Schreber clutched tightly at the bars, still not comfortable with the speed of the strange contraptions or the dizzying height of the shafts they plunged down. Mr. Hand regarded him for a moment, his former displeasure replaced by an look of curiosity. So many of the others were eternally expressionless, and Schreber often wondered if Mr. Hand had taken to imitating human emotion as an aid in their quest to better understand the human soul. "An oversight, Doctor?"
Schreber gave a sharp nod, trying to figure out how to explain this without incurring too much of their wrath. "I'm afraid that the plans for the - upcoming experiments have entirely failed - to take into account the - Christmas Season. I will need to - adjust them."
"The... Christmas Season?"
"The biggest human holiday - of the year."
Mr. Hand frowned slightly. "You have in the past assured us that the subjects themselves would compensate for any special events without need specific inclusion in the imprints. Have you mislead us, Doctor?"
"No," he said quickly. "No, not mislead. The subjects have already - compensated, they are planning and executing - the holiday on their own. But we will need to include these things - in the imprints for tonight. This event is much more than - a regular holiday. If it is not included, it will be greatly detrimental - to any experiments we initiate. Humans plan for days - for weeks even, for Christmas. We cannot ignore that. They will react poorly, they will become confused. It will threaten the integrity - of your data."
Mr. Hand said nothing to him, making some of the strange clicking noises that Schreber had never gotten used to. The lift sped up considerably with a lurch that made his blood run cold, but it stopped soon enough, on the level that overlooked the machine. Schreber had come to think of it as the senate, his mind supplying strange images of ancient romans meeting as such, tiers of men around the room. The Strangers were already gathering here to prepare for the night's tuning, travelling on lifts or levitating to the area. Mr. Hand stepped off the lift as it stopped and gave him a simple order of "Come, Doctor." He strode down the walkway to the centre area, his leather robes swirling around him, leaving Schreber to follow more slowly, the slight chill of the place making his leg ache more.
Mr. Book approached from another walkway, flanked by more Strangers like some ancient king with his attendance. "Mr. Hand. What is this urgent matter the Doctor speaks of?"
Mr. Hand nodded to Schreber, who resisted the urge to grab onto the nearest metal railing as precaution against displeasing Mr. Book. Of all of them, Book seemed quickest to anger, and had no qualms against hanging him upside down over the nearest shaft at the slightest provocation. Instead, Schreber laced his fingers together in front of him tightly, nervously, and repeated what he'd told Hand.
Mr. Book regarded him coolly for a long moment. "Explain to us why we should care about this. Perhaps we should arrange to skip this event all together, if it is to cause such a problem with our plans."
Schreber thought back to the baker, and the carefully wrapped pie that he been pressed into his hand. "Christmas is a time of - hope. You cannot understand - the human soul if you negate - important events such as this."
"A celebration should have no impact on the results of our experiments, Doctor."
He gave a quick shake of his head. "Not a simple - celebration, no. But this is more - than that." He took a deep breath - as much as his poor lungs would allow - and tried to verbalize a theory that had been slowly building in his mind over the months. "Unlike you, humans do not share - collective memory. So as individuals, we must rely on - other things, to sustain us. Christmas is a time to - appreciate others, to give gifts to those around you - as an expression of love and - thankfulness. To connect, to spend time with friends - and family. You cannot hope to find the human soul - without studying the giving and sharing - that is Christmas."
The near silence immediately broke into a clamour of clicks and whirs as the Strangers discussed the information. "Perhaps we should take advantage of this event for experimentation?" one of them suggested in English, which was one of the more effective ways of drawing the collective's attention. "We could change the calender. Move back a month or more and design new experiments to take advantage of this event."
Schreber knew immediately the amount of work that would take. He pictured himself in the lab creating thousands of templates to take all over the city in an endless night of silence, like some kind of twisted, dark Santa Klaus. "But you would have to - imprint the entire city. All of your ongoing experiments - would become invalidated. We could of course - plan for next year?"
They fell into conversation again, and Schreber waited, worrying. His eyes darted from one Stranger to the next, wishing for once that he could understand them. Finally, Mr. Book spoke.
"We will make the necessary changes to the planned experiments to allow for this Christmas event." Book announced finally. "Mr. Hand, please escort the doctor to his lab to make the necessary adjustments to the imprints. Mr. Jump, please accompany me to recalculate tonight's Tuning."
Schreber found himself pulled back towards the lift by a leather gloved hand on his arm. "You are fortunate that we are not angry, yes?" Hand said simply, pulling him on board as the lift started to move. "We hope this convenient little oversight is not a sign of rebellion from you, Doctor."
He shook his head, shivering at the memory of the consequences of previous mistakes he'd made. "I would not punish - the subjects. This was simply an error. I have grown disconnected - from humanity, in my role. Please forgive me."
Mr. Hand regarded him silently for a long moment without reply. Then the lift stopped, and the only thing Schreber had time to worry about was the amount of work that needed to be done. Most of the templates did not, thankfully, need to be entirely remixed, but it took him some time to introduce Christmas plans into each identity - memories of parcels sent to relatives, gifts bought for lovers. He spoke as he worked, instructing his assistant and Mr. Hand on things that would need to be included in the Tuning to ensure success - decorations, presents, Christmas trees. Thankfully, they did not question his instructions, perhaps accepting that in this area at least, Schreber was the expert.
The city had been asleep for half an hour when the injections were finally completed. They did not have time to shuttle him around the city as they normally would. The machines could not be forced to keep the city asleep beyond an hour without strain. He had no choice but to give some of the syringes to the Strangers to handle the imprint, something that had turned out badly in the past - they seemed to have trouble grasping the idea that certain roles must be played by certain types, and had given the wrong injection to the wrong subject, even the wrong gender, on more than one occasion. Schreber assigned each syringe and subject to an individual Stranger in the hopes that it would minimize the chance of error, then let Mr. Hand pull him into the lifts to finish his duties as quickly as possible.
They imprinted the last subject moments before the city awoke, and Schreber breathed a sigh of relief, exiting the last apartment building just behind Mr. Hand. The Stranger turned to him, seeming somehow a little less stern than normal. "Go home, Doctor. Make certain you are well rested. We will meet you two hours before the night's Tuning to prepare."
He nodded, exhausted, and turned for home without a word. The pie in the bottom of his bag was a little squished but delicious, and it was worth its weight in gold to him to be able to eat it and fall into bed without worrying about cooking. He made a mental note to purchase a few more, then drifted off to sleep.
The bath house still existed. Schreber felt a surge of relief, and found an open department store to purchase swimming trunks and an extra undershirt to wear into the water. As an afterthought, he picked up two bottles of wine. One would for himself, a treat he rarely indulged in, and the other to gift to the baker he'd met the night before. There were a number of men in the bath house, but he ignored them, changing quickly and sinking into the warm water with a soft sign of relief. It was the perfect temperature, and immediately he felt aching muscles begin to relax, the stress of the past months, of working for them, dissipating as if dissolved into the hot water.
He lost track of time easily, and could have stayed for hours. He let his mind drift, relaxing as well, and for a short time he didn't think about the Strangers or Tuning or experiments at all.
He turned with a start, fumbling for the glasses he'd left on a towel behind him on the side of the pool. The attendant stood behind him, looking a little disoriented, but focused on him as he identified himself. "Sorry to disturb you, sir. There's someone here to see you. Said he was your... uncle. Said it was urgent, and that he'd wait outside."
Schreber's eyes darted to the clock immediately with a surge of panic, but no - he wasn't late for work, not anywhere near. He thanked the attendant and left the pool with no small amount of regret, drying himself and dressing, taking his bags and leaving the pool.
Mr. Hand stood alone on the street when he left the building, waiting for him, and looked him up and down discerningly. "We are surprised to find you taking part in such a unnecessary human pastime, Doctor."
"I am human," he replied, a irritated at being interrupted. "And I have little else in this city - to take pleasure from. Why do you seek me out early?"
"We have made some changes," Hand replied, turning and starting down the street without waiting to see if he would follow. "We require your presence to facilitate them, yes?"
"Certainly." He gave a sharp nod and followed, wondering what the chances were of the structure he'd left still being in place after another tuning. He had to walk quickly to keep up with the Stranger's longer strides, and already his leg had began to ache again.
As they grew nearer to the alley that lead to the underground, he glanced at the quickly approaching bakery, then down to the package he still carried. "Mr - Hand. If I could beg for - a moment? I need to purchase - a few dinner items..."
The Stranger turned to regard him, then glanced to the bakery. "It never fails to amaze us how frail your kind is, doctor. Buy what you need, but hurry, yes?"
The front room of the bakery was empty when he stepped in, and he rung the bell on the counter and waited patiently. There was a snow globe of Shell Beach sitting by the register, and he gave a small smile at the sight. The vacation destination didn't actually exist, of course. But he'd created it as a constant in the minds of the city's inhabitants. Memories of light and warmth and freedom that they would never experience, not in this place. At times it felt like a noble gesture, a gift of remembered happiness. At other times he wondered if he was being cruel, giving them hope for something that could never be. But then again, they would never realize it's falsehood; the only one to whom hope was fake was him.
"Can I help you?" A young woman with long dark hair and a heart shaped face came out of the back, to his disappointment. She had the same green eyes as the baker had the night before, and he found himself wondering if they were siblings for a moment before catching himself and realizing the folly of his thoughts. No families were related by blood here, only chance and fake memories.
Schreber forced a smile, ordering a half dozen of the small egg pies and paying for them. Then he set the wrapped bottle of wine down on the counter. "Would you give this to - the man who was working - last night? He was very - kind to me."
"My brother? Of course, I'll let him know. Thank you. Merry Christmas."
He stared at her for a moment, a little startled by the revelation that they were indeed family. But then, he had made their imprints, hadn't he? Often he remembered too much about the fake lives of the people around him, sometimes too little. Better that he avoid contact with them all together, he found himself thinking. He'd let himself take too much hope from the random act of kindness of a mere acquaintance. He wouldn't let it happen again.
Mr. Hand was still waiting for him when he left the bakery, and started down the street ahead of him. He paused, however, at the mouth of the alley, turning to face him. "This place where we found you. This... bath house. This is a place to clean oneself, yes? Why not a private shower?"
Schreber stared at him for a moment, hearing the question but not understanding why it was being asked. "No. Yes, but..." he hesitated, trying to figure out how to explain the feelings he'd felt upon finding the bath house. Relief and... to some degree hope. "It is... a place of rejuvenation. It lifts the spirit and - feeds the soul."
"Like this Christmas event, yes?" Mr. Hand seemed to contemplate this information for a time, not moving any closer to the door to the underneath. "We suggest you do not take advantage of our good will, Doctor," the Stranger said, tugging his hat down a little. "However, if you continue to be obedient, we will leave this bath house structure intact for your use."
What choice did he have but to obey them? Still, Schreber smiled and gave a quick nod of his head, feeling a sudden warm rush of joy. "Thank you. Thank you - very much."
Was it his imagination, or did Mr. Hand look amused? "Merry... Christmas, Doctor."