Kamon woke to the sound of bells and saws. The ceremony must have started hours ago; there was invigorating yellow sunlight outside the gauzy curtains. Kamon's Self was intoning eight o'clock, eight o'clock with all the insistence of a song looping in his head.
Flesh brain, he thought, you should have caught that alarm. Sometimes the flesh was louder than the devices supposed to make it properly quiet. The flesh insisted on the persistence of the Real. This was exactly the type of lesson that the brothers were supposed to learn, and Kamon hoped that relaying to the abbot how thoroughly he had learned it might lighten the inevitable punishment that came from reminding himself of himself. (Of course, that punishment would still be severe. He was going to arrive at the ceremony so late--)
On the orders of his Self, Kamon moved blearily out of bed and into the shower. (Rules For The Sanctum Three and Four, said his Self. Wear a clean robe. Wear a clean body.) Like all of the junior monks, Kamon wasn't fully organic, but all of the Aspects of Simulacrum were hidden inside his body. Junior monks had showers in their cells, in impatient anticipation of the time when they would wash with oil and wax instead of water and soap. Still, as the water cascaded down, his Self intoned through its warning. Meditatively it repeated, Warning: Water. Water. Water.
Washed and dressed, Kamon hurried through the temple. The wood-slatted halls were empty, but the abbot's voice and the bells that accompanied it filtered through the entire wood-and-paper building. Kamon rushed through, skidding to a stop at the Sanctum doors.
Sanctum, said his self from its port behind his ear. Ceremony. He had been gifted with his Self when he first joined the order. All the monks had them installed, and grew to forget the time before they had the little voice inside their thoughts.
Kamon eased open the tall double doors. The abbot's voice rose, not just because it was easier to hear now that the doors weren't in the way. The abbot was working the crowd up. The ceremony was nearing its end.
The monks were intimidating when they were worked up. Kamon had seen many initiation ceremonies before, but every time there was a sense that the crowd became one single, frightening thing, ready to lash out an arm made of ten people and crush the temple walls. The rage was contained, though. It was focused on one person up on the stage, the next initiate into the brotherhood--and it was focused on the voices speaking into their ear, the tiny mechanical Selves.
Kamon excuse me'd his way through rows of broad-backed, orange-cloaked people. All of them were gazing up at their abbot and his booming voice, and then Kamon found his spot and looked too.
He had not disturbed the golden-winged abbot from his speech, nor disturbed the people watching him, except occasionally when Kamon sidled past a bulbous, golden metal arm or a gear-caged shoulder. The abbot could not be disturbed. He also had noticed Kamon's late arrival and not blinked or changed his breath at all in reaction to it; Kamon was sure of that.
He was, after all, the abbot, ringed about with hoops of gold and his half-folded, immobile wings. He was the abbot, almost completely devoted to his Real-Self. The only human bit of him showed around his eyes; soft green irises, two curved, pale plates of white-stubbled cheeks, and a flat-topped nose between them like a levy. The abbot resided in gold metal and red jewels like eyespots; the occasional glimpse of black struts and joints deep beneath the decorative armor plates was intimate and disconcerting as naked skin.
Beside him, his eyes closed as he drew reality around him, the initiate stood perfectly still. He wore a ceremonial wrap that showed his arms, one narrow shoulder, one side of his chest, and nobbly, blonde-haired legs below the knees. All organic; it was his first augmentation. Kamon interlaced his fingers, shuffling to make sure he didn't touch the monks around him as they did the same almost without thinking about it. Crowds were like games, with their own unspoken rules.
He thought that he would be standing on the dais soon, looking out at the crowd and all the silver and gold within it.
His Self would sink like that initiate's with the meditation, but when the time came it would say warning, warning. When the first cut went in the cries would get more frantic. Pain. Pain. Disconnected. Cannot maintain physical perimeters. Remapping. Co-ordinating, and then finally the initiate would be a full monk, one step closer to Real. Kamon wondered what was done with the limb the abbot and his surgeons took.
The ceremony was over in minutes. Kamon had missed most of it. He wasn't in the proper meditative state; as the crowd filed toward the doors with him in the middle of it, he looked up at the placid, almost sleepy faces and felt distanced from them. (He probably looked half-asleep himself, but that was for a different reason entirely. All the gummy sand still hadn't blinked out of his eyes.)
The abbot's Self called to his. A little pinging feeling made him shake his head as if to dispel a chill, but it had gotten to his Self too. Query. Attend. One of those vermillion not-eyes was looking at him. Kamon turned and was jostled by an arm, then a flared metal hip. He became a still point in the mass of moving people. "Excuse me. Excuse me."
They replied: "Pardon. Sorry. Excuse me."
Kamon fought the crowd up to the dais, and quicker than he'd thought there he was looking at the side of the room he'd come in on, with the abbot beside him seven feet tall and thicker than him by three times. And the abbot said, Are you more Real today than you were before?
The abbot's mouth and chin were covered with a golden half-pyramid that would have obscured any words had he formed them. Kamon wondered sometimes how he talked to the uninitiated who did not have Selves he could directly speak through. Perhaps there was a translator, who worked at turning electronic signals into words of the same language but very different medium.
The abbot was far too concerned with attaining the Real and releasing the Simulacra to stoop to keeping his mouth just to talk to outsiders, and Kamon was too concerned about how his lateness was going to come into this conversation to worry about exact processes now.
His Self was silent. Kamon said, "I have been maintaining all the practices we must do."
Do you feel more real?
"I do not know."
The watery eyes looked at him and Kamon wondered whether telling the truth had not in fact been the right idea. Monks were still filing out, but almost all were gone, leaving Kamon with the hunched form of the abbot and the sunlight coming in through the high, stained windows.
The abbot put a hand down on his shoulder. It was a sculpture of little golden cylinders, with a gear in the center of the palm that Kamon could feel turning slowly against his clothes. Come with me.
The abbot stepped down from the dais. He was still taller than any man Kamon had ever known, and his hand stayed on the young monk's shoulder all the while he was moving. He led Kamon toward the back of the room, toward the doors to the outside courtyard where, on days of sacred ceremony, only the initiated was allowed to go. Somewhere out here would be the surgeons with their bone saws and the initiate muttering meditations under his breath, if he didn't have the discipline to keep them between him and his Self. He would only keep those lips if he did not. Kamon didn't think he would be ready, on the day of his transformation. He didn't think he was ready to look, now--
The abbot pushed a door open with his free hand. There was no one in the sunlight corridor. A chopping block sat alone and unstained in the middle of the sandy courtyard. Some birds pecked at the yellowish dirt.
Kamon tentatively asked, "Where is the initiate?"
Rooms have been prepared for him. Do not worry, said the abbot, releasing his shoulder.
"I'm not worried." Childlike insistence, but Kamon needed it to distract himself from thoughts of surgery. Why was it so terrible, in his head? It was supposed to be a good thing. A manifestation of the Self, and therefore the Simulacrum which illuminated the Real. No one appreciated what they had when they only had a biological body. That body was Real, it was natural, and, usually, it worked--but it reflected nothing, and gave the monks nothing to meditate on. Simulacrum was that which illuminated the Real by holding up its own falseness, and the monks were gifted and cursed with the sacred duty of holding that metal mirror up to man.
Kamon hoped he would be ready some day; he just didn't know when.
It was strange to stand here with no idea what to say and his Self so quiet, like it was awed by the Abbot's being beside it. He said, "I apologize for my lateness. I very much..." The abbot looked at him. "Sorry."
The green, nested eyes were unreadable, almost quizzical, and then someone knocked on a screen door across the courtyard. It was strange to hear someone knock on the inside of the door, but then Kamon saw the silhouette of a head and shoulders lean out into the transparent screen a few panels away and hesitate there before retracting. Someone had seen the abbot in the courtyard and wanted to introduce themselves respectfully.
The abbot kept looking at Kamon, wrinkles forming on his skin. Kamon couldn't hear his Self talking to the one through the door, but the familiar buzz was in the air. A moment later, the door opened.
A senior monk was leading an old woman. Kamon peered around the abbot as he lumbered toward her with even, businesslike steps. There didn't seem to be anything cybernetic about her; her hands visible at the end of her wide sleeves, and the loose, old skin of her face framed by frizzy gray hair were unadorned, and the shape of her body was a baggy, human cylinder under her robe. She looked up, far up at the abbot, craning her neck to show thick, purple veins underneath her chin.
He said, This one is not from the abbey.
"No, abbot." Kamon responded too quickly; used to giving an answer when the abbot's Self asked, he did not think that it would allow him to overhear what it said to someone else.
But either the abbot had made a mistake in speaking with his Self, or the statement had been for Kamon after all. Because the next one was Ask her why she has come, and that was for Kamon. The buzz in the back of his head told him.
The silhouette at the transparent panel bobbed back and forth again to get a look. Kamon said, "The holy abbot asks whether you are from the abbey." He wondered whether that was a decent translation of the statement, and blushed.
The old woman did not look down at him. He voice when it came seemed to move from a long distance, like a train down a tunnel; it got louder in the middle of the sentence and then Dopplered away to a muttering that Kamon had to strain to catch. She said, "I want to know about the order."
The abbot replied, What are your questions?
Kamon fidgeted, wondering where this woman had come from and why the watcher at the window did not come out, but he conveyed the words.
She said, "I come from the village. We take care of ourselves there; we milk our cows and slaughter our pigs and till our fields. And you up here till your bodies. And one day I met a monk on the road who said that he was more real than I was, except he tried to explain it and said that he was actually...false." Her voice swooshed past even though she was standing still. "And I wonder what sort of gods your temple is raised to, abbot."
The abbot inclined his head. The Order of the Sublime Simulacrum does not worship gods. It is a philosophy.
"It's a philosophy," said Kamon. He wasn't very good at the conveying thing. His Self was saying careful. Careful. Breathe. "The Order of the Sublime Simulacrum doesn't worship gods."
"Then explain your philosophy," the old woman whooshed.
Walk with me, said the abbot. This little one is a junior monk of ours, still all human. Soon he will progress to senior monk, and begin the transformation.
"Um. He asks if you would walk with us. He says that I'm a junior monk who's going to transform. Into a senior monk."
She said, "Is that so."
They did indeed walk, three abreast, around the courtyard. It was small enough that it started to feel cramped as soon as they reached the perimeter.
The abbot continued to explain: Our bodies are what we perceive as real, but therefore they present to us the world in opposition as a falsehood...to make the body a falsehood is to present the world in opposition as reality, and to see it as it is....
Kamon knew the philosophy. Some of the words the abbot gave to the old woman were verbatim what he had heard in classes many times over the years. As they walked in the heat, fourteen paces across one wall and then turn to nine paces along the other and begin the fourteen again along the other side, he paid less attention to the fact that he was speaking the abbot's words. They were projected upon him and viewed by the old woman, and Kamon did not always remember what he had heard from the abbot when it had passed out of his own mouth. The words became a Self with a mind of its own, as they walked and Kamon started to feel sweat cocoon his skin. He noticed small things, like a blue ring on the abbot's left hand-- the one he had not been touched with-- and a faded bluebell tattoo on the underside of the old woman's right wrist, the ink stem bumpy over the standout veins. He told her the doctrine.
And he noticed when the bluebell hand dipped into the opposite sleeve to scratch at the thin skin and to draw from out of the sleeve a pouch of some kind, brown leather.
The abbot said, We reach enlightenment in this way. We reach communion. We reach nature. He said, Our Self will know the world, purely and without assumptions, and we will become Real. We will separate from and embrace the Simulacrum simultaneously. We will pass through the difference between them, becoming imprimaturs independent of delusion. Kamon repeated almost without hearing the words, without knowing how he was doing it.
The old woman said, "And are you happy here, with...this body?" The question made the abbot go silent for a few breaths, and partially brought Kamon out of his transcription trance. Body sounded far away and happy sounded close.
The abbot said through Kamon, "I am a Simulacra, and so I am Real."
The old woman looked at Kamon with pity, and she looked at what he was looking at; the pouch in her hands, her nails curling over it like dulled claws. She turned it over and squeezed it.
She drew a match out and struck it against something else slipped from her sleeve and she threw it against the paper walls. It didn't catch but sat there, orange and weaving. The abbot's self said Fire, fire in Kamon's head and he shied away from the wall, his own Self chiming in fire fire except he could resist that, somehow, he could look away to the person at the door who was stepping through now, holding a torch and was not a monk at all--
Then there were villagers at four corners of the courtyard. The abbot's Self said plans and retreated away from Kamon's with a little pop.
Five villagers dressed in brown cloaks, and the old woman standing there in the sun with her speeding voice and her speeding fingers flicking flame after flame into the wall. She said, "It's wrong, and I would give you time to listen to why but you're in that big metal body and that big metal head. I don't want you to step on me before I've finished."
The abbot hesitated, as if he were going to hit her, and then a villager threw a flaming brand at him and Kamon ducked. He didn't duck away from anything in particular; it was just the human drive to cover the bony, heavy, so-easily-bled surface of the head with the ranked muscles of the forearms, and as he staggered away to keep this flesh mask in front of his face he walked into a villager. Warning, warning, his Self was saying. Something crashed. He looked up to see that a spar of the Sanctum's vaulted ceiling had come down and puffed fire all around it, and it spread to other wooden poles between paper walls before lighting up the paper like the most powerful lantern in the--
--the world, but there was something between him and it now. His Self registered the abbot's with a surprising buzz behind his thoughts. He heard screams and saw orange-cloaked figures run into the flame-courtyard to escape the fire inside. Where had it come from, so fast? Why was his Self registering this jump in consciousness?
There was the abbot, leaning over him like signal and interference all in one. The monastery was burning. Beams collapsed around him, blocking out views of the wreckage on all sides. They seemed to fall toward him slowly, all perspectives and heat-waves. Kamon smelled scorched hair and thought it must be one of the villagers; none of the monks had enough hair to make that stink. He brought in air for a laugh and coughed it out in gray cloud and his Self said Warning. Particulate inhalation. Warning.
Kamon said, "What do we do?" Because his Self could not tell him that any more than it could tell him to get out from under the water of the shower, and maybe the abbot could tell him with the human parts of his face.
The abbot braced on the ground and a fallen beam with his thick metal arms and caged Kamon in them. Kamon felt heat radiating off them like summer sun through glass. More crashing sounds, more shouts. The woman's scream rushed along out of the flame and Kamon was not sure whether it was a wail of pain or an order. They were surrounded by fire and little black flecks falling that had once been wooden parts of the monastery roof, and the golden form was hunching over him, his face wavering in the heat-distorted air. Kamon wondered what temperature was needed to melt gold. It was a soft metal.
The abbot ducked his head. The heat started to hurt. Kamon's skin prickled.
The voice in his head that was not his said: Do not worry, my apprentice. We will all become Real now. We will be story, and the Simulacra will be story, and the Simulacra will hold up the words of which they are written, saying "this is fiction". Because without it they cannot be sure they are not.
This was proper doctrine. His Self sent out its alarm. Fire. Fire. Fire.
His Self only saw the world it observed, recorded, and did not judge. It simply saw. It simply was.
Fire. Fire. Fire.