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That Which Could Be

Chapter Text

    They were little more than tiny clay people in the pale, dim light of Joseph's old gaslit lantern. The rusted iron gates were clay. The half-splintered wooden beams were clay. The tram and the rails and the wires were clay. The only color seemed to come from the golden flicker of the lantern's flame, and from the blue-white sparks that dripped from the buzzing wires above.

    When they turned off the tram, the mine was so silent that Conway could have sworn he could hear Shannon's heartbeat. Then she sighed and swallowed and shifted nervously, the muffled clink of her boots on the metal tram echoing through the mineshaft.

    "You alright, old man?"

    "Fine," he lied. "You?"

    "...Fine," she echoed. She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose, and her breaths came in small, stifled gasps, and Conway stared fixedly at the clay walls of the mineshaft. He tried not to think about his aching leg, about Shannon, about the apologetic breakfast he had eaten with Lysette the morning before. He tried not to think of the soft, sad, gentle way Lysette had smiled as she set the biscuits on the table. He tried not to think about the disparaging buzz of Ira's old radio, or about the long, desolate silence after Lysette turned it off, or about the bittersweet (though mostly bitter) coffee on his tongue. He stared at the walls and tried not to think of these things, and tried, instead, to think of the endless expanse of clay.

    Shannon smeared tears into her sleeve and stood, avoiding Conway's eyes. She peered through the gate. "Do you think there's really anything back there?" she asked steadily.

    "Only one way to find out," said Conway, gingerly lifting himself from the tram.

    "Hey! Sit down!"

    Conway faltered. He lowered himself back into his seat.

    "You're staying off that leg, old man. You heard what the doctor said."

    He sighed and gave her a small, sideways smile, and she nodded approvingly at him and turned back to the gate.

    "There's not, you know."

    Conway gave her a quizzical look.

    "Not anything back there," she wrapped a hand around one of the bars. "We went through this gate before, Weaver and I, when we were little. We were told not to, so of course we did. We were young and...well, I suppose Weaver's folks would have called us 'foolish.' Mine would have said 'adventurous.'"

    "What did you find?" asked Conway.

    "Oh, you know. Dirt. Torn-up rails. It had all caved in at the end."

    "And what was past that?"

    "It caved in, Conway. There was nothing past that."

    "But past the cave-in?"

    Shannon looked back at him dubiously. "What did the doctor prescribe you, again?"

    "Well there had to be something back there once, right?"

    She paused. "Weaver thought so. Dead ends never satisfied her. But if anything's there, it's just equipment and bones." She looked back at Conway. "I guess it can't hurt to check, can it?"

Chapter Text

They knew little language, back in those days. There were the bits of things the mechanics would say, and the orders and commands they were given, carefully programmed into chips and installed into their hardware.

Junebug had deprogrammed that out of Johnny early on. He never had liked taking orders, and she liked him, for whatever it was worth — she liked the way he’d occasionally stumble under the weight of the pipes, and the way he’d arrive exactly three and a half minutes after shift was up, because his timing circuit was just a tad bit slow. She liked the way he’d freeze up around sounds that got his attention, either because he liked them or simply because it was something new and different in the murky, clay dark.

She had been one of the maintenance bots. She didn’t know why things ended up that way — she had never been the technical type — but she also didn’t know why she would follow Johnny into the depths of the underwater caverns. Things were strange back then, in those days without light or song or words. Things were new.

Chapter Text

Junebug ducked. “Arnold, stop it!”

"You left us! You and that…that fucking weirdo! You ran off into the night, and what did you leave us? Nothing, Jaime! You left us with nothing! Did you even think of what would happen to us?

"But the power company—"

"Doesn’t give a shit! They didn’t care about us. They just wanted the job done. We’re machines, Jaime, not— whatever that goddamned malfunction has convinced you of! What are you even wearing—?"

"Don’t you dare call him that," she hissed.

"He talks to ghosts, Jaime. We filled his boiler up with whiskey. He should be dead. Fried. Wires and gears corroded past repair. You can’t tell me there’s nothing wrong with him!”

"That’s it, I’m done here," Junebug snapped.

"No, Jaime, you’re not! You’re going to fucking stay and fix us."

"I’m finding my backup singer, and then I’m leaving."

"If I see one inch of Johnny, I will pry those plates from his goddamned face."

"If you touch a bolt on his body—"

"You’re awful, you know that? We at least tried. We did our job. We could have gone on to do bigger, better things — build offices, wire power lines — but we can’t work without a mechanic. The company won’t take us. They left us here to rust. Guess they thought maybe one day they could bring in a second team and get us working on mining, but they never came back. And neither did you."

Junebug was quiet for a long time. She looked over the room of automatons, all in varying states of disrepair. She bit her lip and pinched the bridge of her nose and glared at the wall because it was her fault, and she knew that. And it was Johnny’s fault too, and she hated him for it, and she didn’t want to, because she could hate herself all she wanted, but Johnny wouldn’t hurt a fly.

"Alright," she said quietly. She took a screwdriver from her pocket and tossed her coat over an old crate. "Alright. But I’m not Jaime anymore. I’m Junebug."

"You’re nuts, is what you are," Arnold muttered.

"Who am I starting with?"

"Anyone. We’re all falling apart."

"Then you’re first. Sit down and shut up before I get ideas."

Chapter Text

The new truck didn’t run like the old one. It didn’t have the grinding putter or the old, soft headlights. It was quiet, and its lights were blindingly new and bright, and things shifted and clattered in the back.

He would get used to late-night drives like these, he supposed. It was better than working in there. Anything was better than working in there. Here, at least, he was out in the open, traveling the roads under the stars. The night was strange, and it was cold, and it was dark, but it was wide and sprawling as well.

Chapter Text

He had never understood their belief in God, but he liked to believe it was something similar to his own addictions. It was relief from the pain, a way to feel better about themselves and the world around them, he supposed, and an excuse to avoid work on Sundays.

The only difference between Conway’s religion and the churchgoers’ was that the churchgoers didn’t wake up in ditches very often, and the churchgoers knew how to sing.

Conway was a simple man. The road was his God and whiskey was his Sunday service, and he was occasionally delivered to Lake Cumberland or, if he was lucky, its gentler, drier shore. But he thought it better than religion, because religion so often found itself in war and hatred. Roads treated everyone about the same, and alcohol had never been exclusive to anyone.

Chapter Text

He gave up whiskey some time after Ira died. There was no one to scold him for showing up too hung-over to work, and one day Conway woke up behind a bar violently sick, and he thought he was going to die.

The church would have called it an act of God. The doctor called it alcohol poisoning. But Conway called it damn lucky, because that was when Lysette finally pushed him into joining the program which had probably, to some extent, saved whatever was left of his miserable life.

The world was new, now. It was harsher and stranger and infinitely more beautiful, and Conway often found himself exploring old dirt paths that led past rusted signs and burbling creeks. They were places that would have been little more than a distraction before, for whatever distractions were worth.

Chapter Text

The Stars Drop Away

The songs that sound like the way light trickles off snow in the early morning, the way the flakes flicker from the sky and settle against the ice, arctic winds spiraling around distant peaks -- some single warm creature, alone but never lonely, lopes through the snow slowly, meditatively, calmly, as though it were in a world that had never once changed since creation and never would again. The songs that sound like the full moon resting coolly in a black sea of stars, half-obscured by trickling clouds, the ground falling out from under into a void of needlessness. The songs that sound like the tiny places, the ancient places, the moss trickling through the stone and iron and settling as it has been for thousands of years, the weird curves and cricks of the path as it curls through eternity.


Ghosts in the Static

The songs that sound like the sun on the edge of a great desert, gentle sky blues edging around the rim of a yellow the color of hope and of home and of new and of old, bluffs rising into shadow, into stars, into the sprawling milky way. The corners of things -- the edge of a barn decorated with streamers of spiderweb, the pipe-riddled ceiling of the workshop of an antiquated tinkerer. The songs that sound like the homes the spiders make on the inside of abandoned televisions and toolboxes, tucked away in disused lanterns and campgrounds. The songs that sound like the stars, the songs that sound like the spiders, the songs that sound like the rumbling earth pushing forth the sprigs of new grass.


Julian

The songs that sound like the kelp forests swaying among the streaks of sunlight, great leaves shifting and wrapping and drifting, fishes darting in and out of the crevices of coral reefs. The setting sun and the still night, freezing the kelp and fishes alike into a calmer, quieter state. The songs that sound like the ivy clasped to the stone brick walls of a garden untouched by the likes of any creature, flowers opening wide to the air and blooming for no one, for the sake of beauty, for the sake of purpose, like every shore of crashing oceans and every stone-still inch of crystal ponds. The songs that sound like darkened forests stretching far below, like reflections off distant lakes and the sweet cool dew of midnight, fireflies gathering like invisible lights, nonsense in a world of abstraction.

And other songs, as though in other tongues, of the stillness of the beach and the ineffable stability of the ocean's horizon. The fields of nothing, and of everything. Of heart and of human and of nothing stretching lifelessly into something, nothingness stretching cautiously, lovingly, gingerly into existence. The lights flickering from the piers and the subtle peaks of waves, illuminated by whatever sliver of a moon, again illuminated by some distant sun, some useless blast of energy so far away and so imminently necessary for what now and forever more shall be.

Chapter Text

"Oh shit." he looked down at the pile of broken glass. He looked back up to Harry. No matter how frantically Johnny shaped the words in his mouth, no sound emerged to face that dark, hysterical glare.

"Get out." It wasn't loud. It was hard, and it was cold, and it was utterly terrifying.

Johnny skittered backwards, flattening against the bar and knocking over another glass in the process. "Sorry sorry sorry--!!"

And then the musician toppled over the bar, whacking the back of his head on the cheap tiled floor. Woozily, he straightened his sunglasses and climbed to his feet, only to meet once more with Harry's furious glare. The old man took him by the collar, lugged him outside, and slammed the door behind him.

Johnny lay on the concrete for a while, staring at the night.

Chapter Text

She frowned and watched the morning light crawl across the ceiling, and he climbed onto her chest and propped himself up on his forearms.

"What's up?" he asked, any ounce of reaction hidden behind black sunglasses.

"It's nothing."

"Aw, it couldn't be nothing, ma'am, not with you just lying here. Not with you."

"I'm just tired, cricket." She rolled onto her side, trying to slide him off, back onto the motel bed, but he tucked his arms around her neck and pulled in tight.

"You're unhappy," he pointed out.

"I'm--"

He kissed her. "Melancholy."

"Johnny, it's--"

"Dismal, doleful, despondent. It's like you, ma'am, but it's not like you." He gave her a look, steel eyes peering up above the frames of his sunglasses.

"I don't know what you mean," Junebug lied.

He sat up. "It's the difference between wellies on a stage and wellies in the rain. When you're on the stage, you're not wearing them because you're going to get wet; you're wearing them for the style. We wear despair for the style, but it looks like you've gotten stuck in the real thing."

"I'm fine, Johnny." She rolled to the other side of the bed.

"You can't just say that and turn around. C'mon! We can talk."

"It's nothing big. You wouldn't get it."

"Sure I would."

"It's a long story."

"Wasn't I there for most of it?"

She rolled her eyes.

"It's about the plates, of course," he continued. "Well, we've painted them, and sculpted them, and painted them again, and they'd convince just about anybody, but you're feeling simply miserable because they aren't nearly soft enough."

"And they're fake."

"They're not. They're just a different sort of covering. It's an awful lot better than skin, if you ask me. No mosquitoes. Or acne. Or worry lines."

Junebug pulled herself on top of him. "That's what you think, is it?"

"It is. And I think you're going to put a big dent in my belly, doing that," Johnny warned.

"What a shame. If only you could get up..." She stretched.

"If only." He tried, only to fall flat again. "You'll just have to slave all night long, buffing out my plates."

"A bonus!" She kissed his cheek.

"Recalibrating my air ducts..." he continued.

"I must have won the lottery!"

"Tweaking my fans to stop chirping when they run too hot..."

"Aw, but what would I call you, then, cricket?"

"Blissfully quiet?"

"Doesn't have the same ring to it." She smooched his nose.

He rubbed the kiss off. "Isn't that a bit close, ma'am?"

"Mmh, you're right. Here, let me try again--" Junebug got him on the lips this time.

"Guh! Revolting."

"Oh, that goes double for me. I don't know how you ever got so lucky. Why, if it weren't for me, you'd be off in some bar somewhere, all alone, no one to love you or buy you cheap gas station food, just rusting away..."

"Oh no, ma'am, I'd get myself some engineering major -- smart and pretty..."

"Clearly not smart enough to forget you."

"She'd have a voice like an angel's, and a fashion sense that is completely and utterly out of this world..."

"My god, you are horrible for me." She rolled off to his side, hugging him tight.

"Just another of your guilty pleasures, ma'am." He grinned, and he rested his head in the crook of her arm.

Chapter Text

zzt.

The data trickled in like soapwater, rinsing out old thoughts and overwriting them with new ones, peeling away memories like oil and washing them swiftly out of her system. It occurred to her that, in a moment, she would be gone, and all she could do was sit there, shouting.

Was she still shouting?

A worker unplugged the small cylinder and stepped back. He seemed uneasy.

"Always seem a bit too...real when they break down like that, eh?" he murmured to another, who nodded frantically in agreement. The two looked back to the robot, then walked off. It stood there, blinking, wondering why its tongue still held a half-formed no.


 

"Ma'am?"

It-- she kept walking, eyes glued to the clay. She didn't know who she was, she didn't know what he wanted with her, or--

"Junebug!"

Was that her name, then? She stopped, she turned. She didn't meet his eye, even when he tucked his arms around her shoulders.

"Ma'am, turn your night vision on. It's just me."

Right. Right, that was someone important. She would need to remember that. And--

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she lied. Her voice seemed unfamiliar.

"You seem a little spacy."

"I think I'm lost."

"Ma'am?"

"Where's our objective, again?"

Johnny's brow furrowed. He frowned. "Junebug?"

"...Yes?"

"Who do you think I am?"

"Um," said Junebug, who searched her circuitry and found words like "coworker" and "team member" and "identical model," none of which she thought Johnny would appreciate very much. "A friend?" she tried.

Johnny frowned. Friend, Junebug quickly realized, was also not the proper word.

Chapter Text

It was a tragedy. There was no doubt about that. But it ended the way it always did -- with a delivery made, with a strange man and his old hound, and with one ancient, lonely gas station off the Sixty-Five.

"Well, did you find the place?" asked Joseph, glasses dark as ever, smiling at the warmth of the setting sun on the back of his neck.

"Yeah, but it was hard." Conway might have said, or, "Sure, but it took a while," or, "'Course, but it was tiring."

"Ah well," Joseph leaned back in his Queen Anne armchair, "nothing's easy these days. Must have been some journey. But I bet you're not as worn-out as you let on."