THE GOLDEN HOUR
Julianna Baggott is the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of twenty books, most recently the first of a trilogy, Pure, a New York Times Notable Book and ALA Alex Award winner, now in development with Fox 2000. Baggott also writes under the pen names Bridget Asher and N. E. Bode, the latter of which is her pseudonym for the Anybodies trilogy. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, and Best Creative Nonfiction. Her work has also been read on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Here & Now, and All Things Considered, and her poetry widely anthologized, including in The Best American Poetry. There are over one hundred foreign editions of her novels to date. For more information, visit www.juliannabaggott.com.
My name is Huck.
I am my father’s son and my father’s father.
How can I be both? I can explain.
They didn’t make many like my father—with an emotion panel worked up so that it adhered to his basic wiring. He told me anger was in his hands, jealousy in his eye sockets, longing in his vocal box, fear in the flexible riblike spokes that protected his pistons. And love—love was in the cavity of his chest, of course. Where else?
“Love feels like a drum,” he tells me now through the grating of the vent. We are near the end. We know it. I’m just a boy still, but I’m going to have to grow up very quickly.
And I say, “Yes, that drumming is just like my heart. That’s right.”
And because I’m his human son, he asks me, “Is it really right? Is it like that for you, too?” He often needs reassurance. Anxiety is lodged in his gravitational center.
I say, “Yes.”
He says, “So, maybe we aren’t so different after all.”
“No,” I tell him. “Not so different after all.”
Among his own kind—the 117s with their bulbous heads, their long arms and legs, humanlike except for the metallic shine and some of the exposed gears (a stylistic detail)—my father is called Herman Melville, after a writer who told a famous sea story a long time ago. The 117s are given a data load called the Classics of Human Literature, to shore up their emotion panels. I have no data loads, and there are no other surviving pieces of human literature, classics or not, for me to read, so I only have the robotic summations, handed down to me from birth, via word of mouth. The five 117s who have tended to me all my life—the only ones who knew of my existence up until recently—whispered tales to me from the beginning, when I was in an incubator made of warmed metal; this is why I have an excellent vocabulary. My father tells me that this is the reason I’m smarter than other humans my age. But the tellers of the tales are not human, and so the tales they’ve told are perhaps emotionally amputated or misinterpreted. But still, yes, Herman Melville once wrote a famous sea story.
And so my father’s model number—117—plus his individual code—HM—were offered a human touch. HM, Herman Melville. He is called Melville.
From the time he was relatively new, he’s worked among beakers and petri dishes. He’s tinkered with human DNA, manipulating it as he’s ordered to do, according to rigid formulas. His lab is small. He shares it with William, Woolf, James, Eudora, and F.—the five 117s who not only share his lab but also his housing unit, and who have become my aunties and uncles.
His lab may be small, but the Human Wing is large. Robots devote much space to the human endeavor. You’d think that after the Golden Hour, they’d have been happy to be rid of us, but no. They’re logical creatures. They know what humans have to offer—variation, mutation, accidents. These are all important to furthering scientific development. Of course, these traits don’t make for great leadership, but they can be used to stumble across something like … well, jazz. Is jazz of use? No, but if you take the variations of improvisational jazz and put them through vast calculations, one can find new patterns of thought. New patterns of thought can then be coded into a computation and lead to inventions that are of use. New patterns of thought are something that robots aren’t good at.
Melville knew, in theory and by rumor, that somewhere else in the Human Wing, his tinkering yielded flesh, eyes that roved in sync and blinked for wetness, hands with tight grips, little bundles of nerves, elastic muscles, fibrous knots of humanity. But he never really gave them much thought.
And then one day, things changed forever. This term—and then one day—is often used in the 117s’ summations of the Classics of Human Literature—one day, as if, in life, doors suddenly swing open where one thought there were only walls and everything changes, in a moment. I don’t know if this is true or not.
But here it is: One day, they were working in the lab as usual when William, the leader of the group, got a message through his intel: one of them was needed in the Archives.
They looked up from their tinkering and stared at each other. The room was silent. Some of them had become creaky by that time, but no one was moving, at all, so no one was creaking. This kind of assignment had never happened before. (Nor did it happen again.)
“Did they say who should go?” F. asked. But the larger question here is: Did any of the six of them know who they were? No. I don’t believe my six 117s did. I didn’t either. I still don’t. My father and aunts and uncles worked. They rested. They were oiled and powered. They passed other robots in corridors. The place was filled with corridors of laboratories, housing stations, repair areas. No one came for them. Orders arrived in William’s intel. Formulas were uploaded into each of their operating systems nightly. No, they didn’t know they, but they knew they existed.
“No,” William said. “They didn’t specify which one of us should go.”
“Did they explain the mission?” Eudora asked.
“Once someone is chosen, that person alone will have the mission uploaded instantaneously,” William explained.
There was still great shine to them then. I should note this. Small robots were sent in to polish them to high sheens, but over the years bits of rust have appeared, small corrosions that the small robots—often winged—can’t fix. One of my first memories I have of being really little was seeing my own face in the shine of Melville’s coating.
F. said, “I cannot do it. I haven’t been to repairs in a long time. I haven’t maintained proper upkeep.” This admission alarmed the others. If F. was so frightened—(oh, the cinching in the riblike spokes)—that he was willing to confess to lacking maintenance, then the mission to the Archives must be very dangerous.
Eudora took another tack. “I think that this is a privilege and an honor and should go to the best among us.” This was also self-preserving. She had broken a beaker some months earlier. She was certainly not in the running.
“As leader, I cannot abandon the rest of you or my post,” William said, and true enough.
Woolf said, “I’ll go.”
But her willingness didn’t sit right with William. He didn’t trust it. “No,” he said. No one questioned his authority on this.
This left James and my father. James looked at Melville warily. Which one would make a move? My father, however, was having a new sensation, an emotion he’d never felt before. It existed in his shoulders. He called it a feeling of being broadened. He later named it courage. He said, “James, I’m afraid but I feel I can overcome it. Should I be the one?”
James, who felt nothing in his own shoulders, nodded quickly.
And that was that.
If Melville hadn’t gone that day, I would not be where I am now. In fact, I would not be; I would not exist. And yet here I am.
I have lived in the housing unit. I have studied what my 117s have taught me of the world before the Golden Hour—for example, it’s called the Golden Hour because the revolt was so massive and well orchestrated that it is said the humans fell within an hour. My 117s would tell what they knew of the outside, but they didn’t know anything at all. They’ve told me about their inventor and about DNA. Their knowledge on that subject seems infinite.
I have always slept out of view of the small observation window in the door. My bed is hidden behind the bank of power stations. I cannot be in it now. Now, I live in this cramped space behind the vent’s grating. I was too large for the bed anyway. My feet—so weirdly pink and rubbery—hung off the end.
I’m in the vent now because they know. They are waiting for Melville to do the right thing and hand me over. And they will add me to the stocks, where I belong.
Once my father was chosen, the intel about the mission to the Archives was uploaded into his operating system; it simply appeared. They needed a 117 for this mission because a 117 would approach the mission as a human might; they had actual full-grown humans they could have used, of course—vast stocks of them—but those couldn’t be trusted. They wanted my father to tour the Archives on a mission to find a certain key that had been hidden there. And then if he did not find the key, he was to stop looking for the key and try to find a brass ring.
They explained briefly that this was an experiment that was developed because of their keen interest in illogical human thinking. They were interested, in particular, in myths, idioms, and things called Old Wives’ Tales, some of which they’d come to find were rooted in scientific fact, though they seemed irrational. They were testing a theory that humans once had of not being able to find the thing that you’re looking for until you’ve stopped looking for it.
The Archives were unlike anything my father had ever seen. Spiders wove webs. Dust spun in the air and left thin furred coats on objects. Clutter. Mess. My father’s operating system whirred and whirred in search of some organizing principle. But there wasn’t even the most rudimentary alphabetization. How would he find a key in this chaos?
Luckily, Melville had been fully uploaded with data about human life before the Golden Hour, and so he knew what he was looking at, more or less—in fact, he felt an inexplicable longing for the past almost immediately.
There was a box with a board game inside of it—a pair of dice, a cardboard mat printed with emblems, a stack of cards bound with rubber. But also, inside, were the husks of two locusts, painted with nail polish. Elsewhere, there were couch cushions, but no couch. There was a small plastic container with holes in it. When Melville popped it open, he found an instrument once used to align teeth and, too, a locket with no chain or photograph. He found bundles of unused paper, rolled-up maps, a cat leash, a DVD of an entertainer with a microphone named Robin Williams. He found mouse droppings and tins of Vienna sausages. Clocks, whistles, guitar strings, an ancient typing device, a pump for bike tires and sports balls, plastic miniature knights, lamps with craned necks. He walked farther and found oil paintings, the kind of stone coffin used when burying a mummy, an entire display of butterflies pinned to a corkboard. He stopped once, dead in his tracks, and held up a ship trapped inside of a bottle.
“Melville,” he whispered to himself and he felt jealousy rise in his eyes as he gazed at the ship. Who did it belong to? He wanted to know. It was a small ship, but he desired very much to steal it. He overrode the emotion with logic. What would he do with a ship in a bottle?
He walked on and found a statue of a girl wearing a gauzy skirt with her hair tied back in a lump, a chain made out of bubblegum wrappers, a taxidermied lion, a dental chair, shoes with buckles, a pale, lightly perfumed cloth with the image of a human face stained on it.
And then he came to a temperature-controlled casket made of glass. He read its small label. ELLIOT V. GRAY, INVENTOR OF MODELS 114–121.
He put his hands on the glass, his fingers clicking lightly, and peered inside. The man had a shock of steely gray hair and a finely trimmed mustache. He was perfectly preserved. No blue tint to the skin. His nails had not continued to grow. He was intact and at peace. My father felt love in his chest cavity as if the space were expanding and might burst.
Melville knew exactly who he was looking at.
Elliot V. Gray was 117-HM’s inventor. His creator. His maker. His loving father.
He hadn’t stolen the ship in the bottle. That goodness would count in his favor, wouldn’t it? Guilt—it was an itchiness in his limbs. He looked around. No one seemed to be recording his actions. Perhaps oversight would compromise his mission of finding the key or the brass ring.
He ran his fingers along the underside of the front lip of the glass casket, and when he hit a latch, he hooked it, pressed, and the lid popped open with a hiss of air.
He didn’t have much time. He didn’t want his father to spoil. But he could not let this opportunity pass him by. One thing Melville understood fully was human DNA. He worked with it on every level. And here was his father’s body, perfectly preserved.
He reached up and touched his father’s dead cheek. He felt that drumming in his chest now louder than ever—love, love, love—as well as rib-spoke fear and shoulder-broadening courage. He reached up and plucked three hairs from his father’s head.
And then he quickly reached up with his other hand and lowered the casket’s lid.
He had his father now, the precious DNA that humanity relied upon.
He could remake him.
He felt his pistons working too hard. He needed to get out of there. The randomness of the clutter was perhaps overloading his system. The dust had muscled its way into the inner workings of his delicate gears.
He spun around looking for the exit. How to get out? How? He charged forward, ramming a card table filled with delicate fossils and a jar of coins that toppled, sending the coins scattering across the floor.
He bent to one knee, gripping the three hairs in his fingers, and there, under the table, he found the key.
He was supposedly looking for it and he found it, refuting the Old Wives’ Tale. But, in truth, he’d forgotten about the key—something he would tell no one—meaning the Old Wives’ Tale was correct after all.
Melville feeds me through the grate vents.
Nourishment was a problem at first. As soon as I was a baby living with them in the housing unit, he asked for work in the nutrition area of the human stocks. His desire to do so didn’t raise too much suspicion. He is, after all, a 117. He has a thing called ambition—a pulse in the back of the neck that makes him sometimes want to jut and lift his jaw—and how could other robots understand that? He stole food from the stocks for me, hiding it by unscrewing small bolts and filling his hollow metal bones with it. And this is how he came to fear the stocks. He saw the conditions that humans were kept in. Dank, fetid, much experimentation—stimuli applied to the cortexes of brains. His greatest fear was suddenly that I would be discovered and sent there. It was no place for me. No place at all.
Today, he feeds me slivers of meat, bits of apple, some potato.
“I won’t let them take you,” he says. “I’ve heard of a place …”
“There is no place,” I tell him.
“Not in here,” he says. “Out.”
This place is all I know. I’ve never even been in the corridors! Out? Out? Where?
My father had the means to use the DNA of Elliot V. Gray to begin a new life with those three hairs, but re-creating his father would require more courage and deceit and theft. He had the authority to create a model number and pass it into production. Elliot V. Gray had to seem like another experiment. Melville had to invent the idea of an extra formula uploaded into his operating system. He then had to use one of the three hairs to begin the process. He tinkered, yes, and hoped for the DNA to take root and bloom before his eyes.
A multiplication of cells. Viable. He gave it the coding number 72183. He’d thought that if I made it to a full-term existence he would name me Elliot V. Gray, but then, no. It would be too confusing to have two of us. And so he named me—in his unspoken heart—Huck, after a Classic of Human Literature, a boy with a friend on a raft, and sent number 72183 on to production.
From there, he would lose track of the process for a while. He’d have to rely on faith, which flitted like something feathery within his operating system.
After the right incubation period, he had to ask William, the only one with access to other branches of the Human Wing, for an update.
“Did number 72183 progress to full realization?” he asked him one evening in the housing unit. Melville was soldering together a metal box lined with cardboard and packing filler to a warming unit. When asked why, he simply told them that he felt a granule in his head, something that felt like a seed that could grow if given the right circumstances, and he was fairly sure that it was imagination. He needed to create this object for no other reason than this granule.
William, like the others, was already seated and plugged into his power source. He scanned the records in his operating system and said, “Affirmative.”
“He’s real!” Melville said, thinking of his father, Elliot V. Gray, alive again. And, at this point, Melville thought he was making someone who would take care of him. (Maybe this is what soon-to-be-a-father humans think too. I don’t know.) All I’m sure of is that Melville had little concept of raising children. The notion was foreign. He himself had never been raised. And so he said, “A baby!” with the slightest hint of confusion in his voice.
“Of course a baby. They all become babies,” Eudora said. “What else?”
“A walrus?” F. said. He often spoke fondly of some tension in his face that made him desire comedics.
But no, I wasn’t a walrus. I was a baby, and Melville would now have to steal me.
The others have been taken, one by one. And I ask through the grate, “Where are they? I miss them. I’m scared.”
“They are being interrogated.”
“Why didn’t they take you in to be interrogated?”
My father isn’t good at lying. “It’s unclear, but I believe they want me to hand you over myself. This would prove the greatest loyalty, they would gain a human for their stock, and they wouldn’t have to then dismantle me.”
“Dismantle you? But you re-created your creator. I am Elliot V. Gray. You have done something good that they’ll understand one day. You said that they will love me. You said that you’ll show me to them!” Sometimes my father gave little speeches about unveiling me to them. He thought we would both get medallions.
“I was suffering hope,” he says. “It crimps my throat.”
And now I feel my own throat crimping, but it’s not hope. There are many emotions all at once. “They can’t dismantle you. Not because of me!”
“I am not handing you over.” He runs his fingers down the grate—clickety, clickety, clickety. “I will not.”
It’s night. The robots must power up in full force, so the lighting systems begin to dim. “I’m taking you now,” he says, and his fingers begin to unscrew the bolts on the vent.
This is how I was stolen: At night during the power surge and the dimming of the lights, Melville slipped through the corridors to the Human Wing. He passed the small lab and walked on and on and on until he heard squalling. He followed the squalling until he came to a lab of incubated babies, all in clear glass containers with air holes—much like the glass cabinet where he had found Elliot V. Gray in the Archives, only each was much, much smaller.
There were no robots around. He could quickly tell that the incubators were self-sufficient. Some of the babies were being swaddled and rocked by the incubators. Bottle nipples were fixed to the edges of the incubators, much like those for lab rats, but lowered and raised to time feedings—or else, Melville thought, perhaps human infants would founder. There were faces of women that appeared on small screens on either side of the incubators. They smiled and batted their eyes. They gazed in a way that Melville recognized as lovingly.
He walked the rows and found number 72183. Me. Elliot V. Gray brought back from the dead. Once again, he found a latch with his fingers, pressed it, and a lid popped open.
He was astonished by my fleshiness, my rubbery texture, the strange etching of veins, the wetness of my mouth and eyes, my rising and falling ribs, and the odd pulsing atop my head. He wrapped me up snugly. And he whispered, “Daddy,” into the warm, humid air.
Corridors! I’ve heard of them all my life and now I see them with my own eyes! Yes, there is the dimming, dimming, and it’s harder for me to see than it is for my father who was created with night vision in place, but I can feel the wall against my hand, feel the strange flooring under my handmade shoes. I am almost as tall as my father’s shoulder now. He’s holding my hand tightly.
“What is ‘out’ like?” I whisper, as we pass door after door with their small rectangular windows. “Will it be like two friends on a raft going down a river?”
He stops and says, “I cannot go with you. You will go alone. Do you understand?”
I suck in my breath. This is a gasp. I’ve been told during my aunts’ and uncles’ summations of the Classics of Human Literature that people gasp. Sometimes their hearts thud—sometimes for love and sometimes for fear. My heart was thudding. “I understand,” I tell him, but I don’t.
He takes me to a flight of stairs marked Emergency! Emergency Only! His metal heels clang against each metal step.
I say, “Will it be an adventure at sea? Will there be wolves? Will there be a tornado? And will I come home again?”
“I do not know how it will be.”
“You always know how it will be.”
“Not this time.”
And then I smell the rot. I know where we’re headed. The stocks.
“Not the stocks! You said …”
“Not the stocks,” he says. “Through them. Out.”
He comes to a door. A robot stands guard, heavily armed. My father says, “This is Elliot V. Gray.”
The guard is a 117. He must be. It’s clear he’s expected us but is still a little surprised we actually showed up. He looks at my father and at me and seems to be feeling something. He opens the door and says nothing.
There is a hall, close walls, the sound of water dripping, dripping far off. There are cells on either side. Humans are pressed in close. Arms, legs, skin, and teeth. Humans, like me. Eyes like mine, hungry and wet and quick. They reach out. They mutter. They terrify me—with their smells and their pawing and their need and their contorted faces and their unwieldy movements.
One calls, “Boy! Boy!”
And I say, “Yes! Yes, I am.” And for the first time, I am human. I’m one of them. I’m a boy. I’m not an invention. I’m real.
Melville roused the rest of the five when he got back to the housing unit. He was holding a human infant. They were startled. They said, “Melville, where did this child come from?”
He said, “I made him and I stole him. He is good!”
They stared at him, unable to speak.
“Do you understand what I’ve done?” he asked them.
“Do you understand what you’ve done?” Eudora said, flapping her arms angrily.
“Wait,” William said, always thinking. “Is this baby number 72183? Is that why you asked about its viability?”
Melville nodded and started to explain, but F. cut him off.
“A baby!” F. said, coming up close to my being. “A human baby!”
Woolf said, “I’ve never really fully understood what we were making in those petri dishes!” He picked up my ankle and showed the others my foot. “What precision! Look at the tiny little lines!”
“Why does its head pulse like that?” James said, suspiciously.
“Because it’s truly alive,” Melville told them. “And the baby is ours in more ways than one.”
“What do you mean?” William said.
“It is our honor and privilege, it is our duty and responsibility to raise this child because this child was made in the image of our creator. This child was made with the DNA of Elliot V. Gray, inventor of models 114–121. This is our father! And our child! In one! And we will call him Huck.”
I’ve been told this story a thousand times. And this is the part I like most: they gathered close, one by one, with solemn adulation, and quiet but abiding joy.
We come to the end of the hall, which veers to the left. There is a sign that reads Laundry and we follow its arrow.
And there at the end of the hall, before two double doors, is a human who is not in a cell. He looks at me, shocked. He says, “My God, really? How, Melville, how? He’s grown. How did you do it?”
I know how. Day by day, my aunties and uncles and Melville cared for me, preening me. They taught me walking and talking. And I taught them, day by day, how human emotions work in real time. My surprise, joy, anger, insolence, the depth of my sadness; the way, after a time, I felt caged and wronged. “Humans are animals,” Melville tried to explain to them. “They need air and light and other humans.” But he couldn’t give this to me.
Instead he built a chamber and I would lie down inside and he would program it, as best he could, to mimic the settings in the Classics of Human Literature—night skies pierced by a castle spire, dark forests, the Mississippi River, the prow of a ship in the middle of the sea.
He couldn’t create other humans, though he tried. And so William made me little bots to have as friends; he was good at this. F. gave me papers and inks because humans need to create. Eudora told me to act out the Classics of Human Literature because she’s heard that humans learn by reenacting. Woolf gave me a box covered with taut strings to strum because humans need music. She taught me to sing. And James, well, James warned me of the dangers of the world. He wanted me to know fear.
And I do, James. I know fear well. I feel it now.
“I cannot tell you how it was done, not now,” my father says. “Can you get him out?”
The man nods. He says, “This way.”
And there are big white machines in rows and giant tubs and sheets strung on lines, billowing like ship sails, and gusts of steam. Other humans are working, working. Curled backbones like rows of bulbous knots. (Is that what my backbone looks like?) And moist faces. And muscled arms. Coughing, coughing. They steal glances, but know not to look for too long.
I grip my father’s hand, passing piles of the clothes that I have worn all my life—stolen from this place?
When we get to the far end of the room, the man says, “I’m Ed.” He shakes my hand.
“I’m Huck,” I say.
He glances at Melville, then back to me. “Huck?” he says, his eyebrows raised the way I know I raise my own eyebrows sometimes. He’s surprised.
My father nods.
“Okay then,” Ed says. And he pulls out one of the big white machines, yanking it back and forth and back and forth. Behind it, there’s a hole in a wall that leads to a dirt tube.
“A tunnel,” Melville says. “You’ll climb through it until you are out.”
“But you haven’t told me what’s out there yet,” I say.
Ed says, “You’ll know when you get there.”
And I’m not sure what to say. I turn to my father. “They won’t dismantle you for this, will they?”
But he’ll never be good at lying. He looks at his hands. They tremble with anger. He puts one hand on his chest cavity and one on my heart. His metal is damp from the humid air, and I swear I can feel the drumming of his heart now. His ribs cinch with fear. He starts to speak, but his voice is cut off—longing in his throat. He tries to clear it with a cough. But finally, he can only manage a rough whisper. He says, “They will probably dismantle me, but you gave me life. And you will live on, my son, so therefore I will too.”
And this is true. Without me, Elliot V. Gray, my father would never have been invented, and without him I would never have existed. There is no difference between father and son and son and father. Right now, I feel the pain and clenching and drumming of love and fear and longing coursing through my entire body—the ache of it coming to a knot in my chest. I say, “I love you.”
And he says, “I love you, too, Huck.” And then he says, “Go on.”
But Ed turns to him and says, “What if you went with him, Melville?”
“But I can’t survive out there. I’m not meant to—” He stops speaking and shakes his head.
“You won’t survive in here either. Go quickly,” Ed says. “Just go.”
I climb into the hole first, and then I hear Melville’s aged, creaking parts as he climbs in after me—Melville, my father, my dear son—and we’re about to be born into a different world. This is not The End.
Together we start crawling toward light