Head & Solders by Nicholas Driscoll
Will-Yem’s head woke up at five in the morning, as it always did, as the electric snap of his alarm crackled across his cheeks. Alarms, as always, were a rude awakening, but for him it was worth the shock so that he didn’t have to worry about disturbing his wife Kat-Rin with a jangling ring or an obnoxious song.
He opened his mouth and mimicked a sigh, even though he wasn’t breathing. His head was still disconnected from the body he was planning to use that day, so he couldn’t breathe yet—the nutrient tubes were enough. He was pulled out of the cushion next to his wife by an old pulley system that he kept well-oiled so that it didn’t squeak, and his head was wheeled over and across the room in a rush. He reveled in the breeze from swinging through the air, and tried to enjoy the quick spinwash and dry of the morning. He still had hair, and the headwasher applied a bit too much shampoo this time, the suds getting in his eyes, which he tolerated, and into his mouth, which he did not. He sputtered and swore as he came out of the washer, and made another mental note to notify the landlord about the malfunction.
The pulleys carried his head over to a decorative table—not full size, since it really only needed to accommodate his head, but fairly elaborate, carved of imitation wood, with designs that his wife had picked out depicting curlicues and flowers etched into the edges. A sponge was positioned in front of his mouth, and he took it, chewed on it, and his mouth was filled with the flavors of the morning—fried eggs, sausage, cheese, then a shift to sweet apples, a dash of yogurt. He closed his eyes to enjoy it.
The sponge didn’t give him any nutrition, of course. He got all that through the tubes. But still, the flavors gave him no harm, and the act of chewing had been proven a sort of psychological salve to his mind. While he knew the stuff didn’t do him any good on a physical level, still, having the sensation of eating perked him up and helped him get ready for his day.
Moments later, the sponge was spirited away to be washed, and Will-Yem’s head was transported and placed upon his body, secured, the connections clicking and whirring in place.
He was proud of his body. He had saved a lot of money to purchase it, especially the abdomen. Not only was the abdomen the largest part of any body, but this particular model was high end. It actually had lungs that pulsed in and out, mimicking the regular movement of a real body, that felt so right to his mind—not just a tank giving a regular stream.
The lungs started pushing air out his nostrils, and he felt alive. The body stepped forward, tiptoeing, and a hologram displaying his choice of street clothes sprang across him, soles to temple—faux sports outfit today, to make him feel strong.
He put his hand to the door, saw the metal of his fingers for a moment before the hologram covered it. His hand didn’t match the rest of his body—dull gray instead of polished bronze in color, dented, scratched. But he treasured that hand, just the same.
Will-Yem turned, smiled sheepishly. Kat-Rin was staring out of her cushion at him, a coquettish crooked smile across her brown lips.
“Don’t lose any parts,” she whispered. “I’m going to need them all when you get back.”
Will-Yem blushed so hard he threw a hologram of a placid face over his own and ducked out the front door.
It was an empty joke, of course—the part she was referring to was a screw-on that she kept in a drawer next to her bed. Still, he always got so embarrassed when KR got frisky.
The hallway was full of noise which he had not registered while inside. His apartment was soundproofed; it could be turned off, and in the case of a fire alarm, all soundproofing in the rooms would automatically switch off. But on a normal day, it was nice to escape the fracas. The head-tube strung along the upper edge of the hallway walls was packed with disgruntled noggins shouting and cursing. The noggins had no bodies, and had to thus rely on public transport to get around even inside the apartment complex. But it looked like the tubes were clogged again, and who could say when they would get moving.
Will-Yem tromped forward, head down, deciding to take the stairs.
“Come on, man,” cried out a grizzled noggin with scraps of white hair jutting above his eyes. “Share the air and take someone with you! You got arms!”
“There is no sense you just walk out here by yourself!” said another. “My dear head, you take me, I’ll pay you. Your feet is cash!”
Will-Yem tried to walk faster, but the voices got louder, more pleading.
“Don’t set your legs to automatic!” said another voice, this time a female with longer hair wrapped tightly under a semi-transparent hat. “Use your brain!”
Will-Yem could have set his legs to run, and to follow a pre-determined route to work, then tuned into his favorite videos and relaxed while enjoying the entertainment until his legs brought him where he needed to go. He sometimes did that. Lots of people did. It kept the sidewalks moving fast, kept congestion down, made sure no one was just loitering. But he didn’t like to give his legs over to the system every day. Same reason he liked the feeling of proper breathing in and out his nose, he liked to feel in control as much as he could. At least pretend.
And as he walked he suddenly found himself barking out loud, “Anyone going to District 0033?”
A chorus of voices rang out, excited, angry, frustrated.
“That’s near enough to my job, just pull an oxen-free and chuck me over!”
“On my way, head, take me!”
“Just get me out of this tube, my nose is stuck up my neighbors ear and all I can smell is earwax!”
“I only have one extra lung!” Will-Yem yelled back. “I can’t carry a whole potato-sack full!”
The voices grew even louder at that crack. Some noggins had nutrient pouches or independe-lungs strapped onto their craniums, so they could travel for at least a while without being plugged in to the system or parasiting off of a walker. Will-Yem didn’t want to spend time checking noggins for the pouches and straps, though, and finally just unceremoniously grabbed some head off of the jammed transport and plugged it into his extra lung without even a hello or a shut-up-already.
“Very kind of you,” said the other head now riding beside his own while Will-Yem charged down the stairs. “Long time since I felt a lung’s air.”
“They’re artificial lungs,” said Will-Yem. “I don’t have enough money to pay for a bio-organic abdomen.”
“What head does?” replied his neighbor.
It was a woman’s head, at least by appearance, and with a quiet voice. She had a wide nose and surprising dark eyes, filled with depth, or perhaps with sleepiness.
Other walkers were on the stairs as they went down: He recognized his neighbors—Sam-Yell, with his awkward clanking body of red rusty metal and clawed hands, shuffling down before him. Fill-Lys, the landlord, with a set of articulated wheels that adjusted to the terrain instead of proper legs. Far-Lin, the local sponge-dealer, with his wolf-ears twitching on the sides of his head, and his tendency to galumph along on all-fours.
“What do you do?” asked his passenger. “Other than walk. Some people, they think that’s enough of an accomplishment to define them.”
“I work direct on the beans,” said WY without looking over. “Temple massages, with a side of friendly banter. Bad jokes cost extra.”
The woman’s head laughed in an undertone.
“Providing a valuable service,” she said. “All craniums, we need some physical contact, even with our fake bodies.”
“And you then?” asked WY, glancing over. “You have a voice job of some kind?”
She used the lung to create a sigh.
“Assembly doc,” she said. “Check body health quick on the conveyors for heads who need a quick tune-up. The bodies come down the conveyor, I fix them, even have the credentials to grab them off the belt and peel the can if they need it.”
Will-Yem grimaced and kept on walking, now out into the world, and the marching feet everywhere in perfect lines, in perfect order, staying in the foot lanes.
For convenience, WY stepped in line and allowed the program to direct his feet toward his working place, with a stop-off at the Body Shop, where his guest worked. Instead of starting up a video feed or taking a nap, despite his early-morning fatigue, Will-Yem made his latest memes and posts available to the public social media system so others on the streets could access his latest quips, and then turned his attention to the other head sipping at the oxygen from his spare lung.
“I’m afraid I’ve been a bit bull-headed,” WY said. “I didn’t ask your name.”
“Oh,” said the doctor. “You’re right, I don’t make it publicly available. I keep my social media private usually, but you’re my neighbor, so… my name is Zan-Ta. Thank you again for carrying me out here.”
“You work near me, really,” WY replied. “It’s no problem. But may I ask… how do you work as a doctor with no body?”
ZT blushed, and WY felt his own face reddening, ashamed for asking a personal question. He was trying to think of a way to backtrack the question when she finally responded.
“I had one before,” she said. “Nothing fancy like this one. But I gave it away. Now just use the loaners from the shop. They are functional and can do the job, so no problem.”
WY stared—not at ZT, but at the back of the body-frame walking in front of him. It was hard to imagine anyone just giving away their own body. Who could ever give away such convenience, hand away the visceral experience, the privileges and pleasures of owning your own legs?
“You gave it away?” was all he could say.
“Oh,” she said, a shy smile in her voice now. “Not at once. Bit by bit. You meet a lot of bodies missing something in my line of work, I am afraid.”
“But,” WY said. “It’s your body!”
“Well,” replied ZT. “They had needs. And I am fine. The public systems work well enough, and I am alive.”
The conversation continued, but WY couldn’t focus. Soon enough, he dropped Zan-Ta into the tube at the Body Shop, and continued on his way.
All day as Will-Yem worked, massaging a wide range of craniums with a wide range of issues, bumps, and complaints that they shared as he poked and prodded and squeezed with cushioned and heated gloves, Will-Yem thought about Zan-Ta’s words and often found himself staring at his right hand again and again. The distraction threw him off his game, and some of his gags which usually had the average noggin cackling with humor drew blank stares. He decided not to charge for his jokes today.
* * *
Back at home that evening, he broached the topic with his wife over steak-flavored sponges.
“I met a doctor today who doesn’t have a body,” he said. “I think she deserves to have one.”
“A doctor?” KR responded, brows crinkling in concern. “Are you sick? Did that rash come back, around your spinal scar?”
“No, my scar is fine,” WY said. “I carried her to work this morning. The tube was jammed again.”
“It was still jammed when I headed out, too,” KR said. “Why doesn’t she have a body? Doctors usually have bodies.”
“She is an assembly doctor, for one,” WY said. “And it’s like… Well, it’s like with my hand.”
KR was in her body as they chewed the sponges together, and she reached over to touch his shoulder. They had both learned long ago that wearing their bodies during meals and conversation was a big help in maintaining their emotional connection.
“It was just a random head that gave me this hand,” he said, holding up the old thing so KR could see. “Just random generosity. Never even found out his name! But that generosity got me my job, and with that job I found you, and…”
“Yes,” Kat-Rin said. “That man giving you a hand changed your life. I am grateful, too. But what do you want to do? We don’t have an extra body in the closet, nor the cash points to purchase one.”
“True, but I know a lot of heads,” WY said. “A lot of our neighbors are also my customers. We can put something together. A head has a right to a body, especially a doctor!”
Kat-Rin chewed thoughtfully and then sat back. She nodded.
“One of the things I love about you is your emotions,” she said. “Why don’t we ask?”
* * *
Will-Yem asked, assembling a group in-person (after some argument about how much easier it is to just meet online). Sam-Yell was there, awkwardly attempting to cross his arms with his claws in, and Fill-Lys wearing an especially shiny set of wheels and a handsome false-face. Xiao-Krai, sat back on fold-out chair-legs which could be tucked neatly away into her thighs when not in use, in a delicate frame and face behind a shield visor, body wrapped in religious posts and memes made public with messages inviting everyone to church. Others were there, too—heads of various races, some animalized. One even had an impressive set of real antlers grafted to her skull.
“Zan-Ta is a real body-builder at the assembly,” WY finished his speech, standing amongst them with hands splayed plaintively. “She has given her body. I think she deserves to have one back.”
Xiao-Krai was the first to respond, nodding her head, and highlighting a verse about how the body is sacred on her public posts.
“I have always believed that the body is a gift from God,” XK said. “In my opinion, every head deserves a body. The government never should have taken bodies away from individuals.”
Sam-Yell shifted in place uncomfortably, clicking his claws together.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Just, heads need less space, so… it’s hard.”
The woman with the antlers made a voice like clearing her throat (despite not having a throat), unstrapped a hand, and tossed it in the middle of the floor.
“Let’s make a pile,” she said. “Your God says it’s a good idea. My heart says it’s a good idea. Common decency says it’s a good idea. The tubes in this joint are always breaking down, and if the doctor is late, that’s dangerous, am I right?”
Voices rose suddenly, heads getting excited, bodies shifting weight side-to-side.
“Do you think the doctor would like a claw?” said Sam-Yell.
“Take both my legs,” said a small head on a huge body. “I have a set of wheels back in the room. I kinda prefer them anyways.”
“The body is going to be a real patchwork,” said a regretful voice. “Nothing is going to match.”
“I hear you, but we can’t body shame,” said Kat-Rin, smiling. “My own body is a patchwork too, and a hologram covers that up much of the time anyway.”
Fill-Lys put on a bland expression, watching the group excitedly try to put something together.
“I like what you’re doing, hon,” she said. “It’s real nice. I think everyone wants to help. And maybe we can put together a few spare feet or a few spare arms, but… the real problem is the abdomen. Nobody keeps a spare abdomen in a cheap apartment like this.”
“That’s right,” said a crotchety old codger face embedded in a body crafted halfway like an old suit of armor. “Body ain’t gonna be no good without an abdomen.”
“What are you going to do about that, WY?” asked Sam-Yell, eyes raised.
Will-Yem felt his face pale, and he looked down. He clenched his fingers together in determination, though his emotions spiked, and he felt a terrible sense of loss suddenly.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. “I know someone who has one he doesn’t need.”
* * *
Will-Yem’s head woke up at five am in the morning to a kiss as his wife Kat-Rin urged him out of his cushion. She was already wearing her body, and she smiled down at him.
“Time to go already?” he asked.
“That’s right, time to get up,” she said. “Fixed the headwasher, less soap used now. Our eyes are spared!”
“It’s really nice to have breakfast with you every morning now,” Will-Yem said.
“Your favorite today,” she said. “Grilled salmon with sea salt and a side of dill pickle.”
“My favorite breakfast is a breakfast I get to eat with you,” Will-Yem said, smiling as the pulleys swung him to the table. “Even if I have to wear a loaner at work for a while.”
He savored the scent of salmon wafting from the sponge in front of him, and bit down. They ate in silence for a few moments, sucking every last bit of flavor from their respective sponges, and smiling into each other’s eyes.
“I do miss breathing, though,” Will-Yem said fifteen minutes later as the pair headed out their front door.
“You’ve still got your most important part,” she said, hooking him up to the airflow on her body.
“What part is that?” he asked, face reddening as usual.
“Well, me of course,” she said, poking him with a metallic finger. “I’m the part you’ll never lose.”
Will-Yem smiled so wide that his cheeks hurt, and they stepped out into a beautiful new morning.
Nicholas Driscoll has been writing short stories, plays, novels, and comics since he was in junior high, and holds a creative writing degree from Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He has received awards for his fiction, including a second-place award for the short story “Patriarchy” in The Spectrum literary journal in 2004, and has since written several unpublished novels, a gamebook, and dozens of comics. Driscoll is also an avid fan of movies, and has written hundreds of articles and reviews for the Japanese movie fan website Toho Kingdom. He currently lives in Japan, where he speaks Japanese with lots of mistakes and enjoys it.
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