Golem Project in Progress
The inking room was grungy and dim. Wessel was greeted as soon as he got through the door, by a man who sat back against a desk.
“How’s yer shoulder, little mate?”
Wessel rolled his shoulder at the prompting of the greasy, gold-toothed tattoo artist, prompting a grin from the man.
“Gifted doc, that’un. Gotchoo right up right quick, neh? Never even had to leave the waiting room.”
“It’s good,” Wessel said. Indeed, his shoulder felt pretty good. There was still a dull ache inside it, like a bruise inside the joint, but Wessel had dealt with a lot of bruises in the past few years. It would heal up.
The tattoo artist turned on a switch, and the light over his desk flickered on and off. He flicked the cone that held the bulb, and it buzzed back at him, shining more steadily.
“They use all the best tech on dese here Golems,” he said. “Can’t even get a good lamp like I used to. Last twenty years been rough, lemme tell ya.”
The light shone down on a collection of wires and sharp implements with tubes attached, draped over a large pile of books. None of it seemed to be organized in any way. Some of the books had fallen off the metal desk and onto the floor, and judging by the dust on them, they had been there a long time.
The tattoo artist stuck out a hand spattered in small black blotches. “Name’s Peller. What’s your moniker, little mate?”
“I’m Wessel,” he said.
“Wessel, Wessel. Come on, sit down.” Peller gestured to a chair that was much the worse for wear. The metal had rust on it, blotches of ink and other stains. Despite the appearance, though, the chair was completely clean. As Wessel approached, he could smell the disinfectant on it.
“Excited, are ya?” Peller asked.
Wessel nodded, gripping the arms of the chair.
“We’ve got ta match you up, Wessel. You know what I’m talking about?”
Wessel did, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak. His heart was still jamming up his throat. He thought he might throw up if he tried to answer too fast. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his heartbeat double.
“Whoa, relax, boyo.” Peller patted Wessel’s head with one greasy hand. “Ain’t nuthin’ to fear in here, got it? I’ll go over it so’s we don’t make a mistake.”
Wessel nodded, trying to breathe slowly. It worked, calming him back down. If he could dissociate from the situation, he could be calm, less excited. But he needed to pay attention, too. It was always like this. Impossible to act right.
“Ahem,” Peller said, patting the stack of books. Another volume fell off the desk. “Everyone gets their own golem when they gets ta be twelve. That’s just how it is, now. We, and by ‘we’ I mean them ‘smart politi-cans’,” Peller made air quotes as he exaggerated the name, “figgered that if everyone could protect and monitor themselves, it’d work a lot better than the guv’ment settin’ up more police stations and whatnot. So we said heck, give everyone giant robot golem things. I even got me one waiting in the garage. Ain’t nobody gonna even try to punch a sucker that has a massive defense machine behind ‘im.”
Wessel worked his eyes over Peller’s body, trying to find the distinguishing mark.
Peller noticed, grinned, and pushed up his sleeve. An unfamiliar Japanese character, inked in black strokes, stood out on his arm. “Ain’t it a beaut? Means ‘Destiny’. I picked it out when I was in my late teens, since that’s when the program started. The tattoo you get links you to your golem, and the symbol you pick determines what you get. It’s simple. Kinda mystic, but simple.”
Wessel looked at the desk and swallowed. He’d never gotten a tattoo before, and the implements looked sharp and dangerous.
Peller followed his gaze. “Yeah, I don’t know Japanese, so I just use the books for symbols. Technically, we got Chinese, Korean, a book on some of them hire-o-glyphs, anything that is all logo-graphic.” He grinned. “You like that word, ‘logo-graphic’? I get to use fancy ones like that in my job. Any one of these symbols will hook you up with the appropriate Golem, and we’ll get it shipped here lickety-split. All you gotta do is choose your symbol. Choose your golem partner-for-life with one word. It’s like marriage, but the metal monsters don’t nag and yammer, so there’s no pressure.”
Wessel licked his lips. “One word?”
“One symbol, or a couple of symbols. Could be a couple of words, if we got a symbol for ’em. These logogriffic languages do weird stuff with their words. Most everyone wants to get some kind of kanji like God, Power, Calamity, Princess, or Dragon. Something that means something to them, or just sounds cool. Me and Destiny get along just fine, even if I was a teenage edgelord with a superhero complex when I picked it. You’ll like yours, whatever it is.”
While Peller babbled on, Wessel was thinking. One word. He hadn’t gotten past that question. He had been waiting months for this moment, and had tried to make plans. His parents had talked to him about it. ‘Smart.’ That was one of the symbols he’d wanted. ‘Good.’ ‘Protected.’ ‘Loved.’ Every time he’d come up with a word and discussed it with his parents, they had smiled. They said “If that’s what you want.”
He didn’t know what he wanted. That’s why he was asking them. Why didn’t they understand that?
When he tried to communicate when them, they had said it was his choice. His father said “Don’t plan anything out ahead of time. When the time comes, you’ll know what symbol you want. Planning things out can change what you think, and give you a Golem that doesn’t fit. The symbol needs to come from who you are and what you need.”
Easy for them to say.
Wessel wasn’t like his parents. He didn’t think like his parents, didn’t understand things the same way they did. His dad had a Hieroglyph of a Phoenix. His mother the kanji for ‘Brother.’ They got on fine with their golems. His father wanted something that transcended death. His mother wanted the brother she’d never had. They told him that, but Wessel didn’t have those problems. He didn’t desire a brother. He didn’t think about death.
What did he want? What did he need?
His mind wandered back to the fights. The fight with Lillian. The fight with Jakob. The Golems were meant to protect the user against nefarious human involvement. They were programmed never to attack people, not at all. Though they had evolved beyond the basics, they still followed the rules of robotics.
DO NO HARM.
That was why their controller, to pass the exam, had to learn to subdue their foe without harming them. Without attacking them.
Obviously, golems could hit a lot harder than people. If a person had no control, no understanding of combat, then their golem just wouldn’t work for them. It wouldn’t be able to defend them without breaking the laws of robotics, and so it would do nothing. It was a messy system for self-protection, but it worked.
Those fights were his best metric for understanding. What did he need, if he was going to protect himself? What did he lack?
“Adapt,” Wessel said.
“—and that’s why— Excuse me?” Peller stopped talking for a moment and peered down as Wessel.
“Adapt,” he said again. “The… Kanji for adapt?”
“Alright, yes!” Peller said. He dove behind the desk and began looking through books. “Decision made, good, great’un. Have to find the book, see what you’ll get out of that there symbol. Lesse, Kanji. Kanji is beautiful, I love inkin’ it. Ad-apt, adapt. Te-ki-o Su-ru? A-wa-su? Multiple symbols, need to find a good match. Mix ‘n match parts to have a custom golem, maybe? Lots of people get that sort of thing done. Ah, what’s this?”
The room fell silent. Peller blinked a few times, then looked up at Wessel.
“I got one for you if you’re sure, little mate. There ain’t many golems that got three symbols rollin’ into one, but this here is one right from the book. ‘Adapt.’ You good with that?”
Wessel nodded again, without hesitation.
“Alrighty, then,” Peller said, stepping around the desk and picking up the tattoo pen. “Nobody’s ever asked for this one before, but it should work for you. I hope you ain’t too picky.”
The first pinprick hurt. After that, Wessel lost himself to the humming whirr of the pen against his shoulder.