On Monday, Montgomery Blique had trouble getting out of bed. Not physical trouble, mind you; he just couldn’t bear the idea of starting another week. Because starting a week led to finishing a week, and finishing a week led to another week. It was all rather grim and existential.
And that was exactly the problem: Montgomery wasn’t supposed to have grim or existential thoughts. He was the very model of a modern, successful gentleman — the cutting edge of fame and fashion.
Montgomery’s manufacturer, Sylvia T. Price, prided herself on painstaking detail: he grew hair from thousands of individual follicles, sweated from millions of tiny pores, and housed billions of bacteria in synthetic intenstines. He was truly indistinguishable from a distinguished biological human male.
Montgomery never questioned his existence, never second-guessed himself. This confidence was a standard component of Sylvia’s process; if they weren’t sure of themselves, her automatons could be manipulated. And that would be no good to her buyers, countries in need of leaders who couldn’t be bought.
Montgomery tried to delay his day by counting cracks in the ceiling, but it took only three quarters of a second to see fifty-seven of them. Killing time was hard when computation was so easy.
But he still got out of bed. Whatever the malaise afflicting him, he had a duty to perform.
He surveyed himself in the full-length mirror opposite his bed, then addressed his reflection: “I’m the Attorney General of England and Wales, and I’m dashingly competent,” and this was true.
For good measure, he added, “I don’t have nervous breakdowns,” and this was foreshadowing.
The nervous breakdown happened after a clerk deposited a stack of fresh paperwork on his desk. Instead of signing his name on forms, Montgomery found himself writing “What’s the point?” and, though the sentence was beautifully written with calligraphic perfection, it would not do.
He tried breaking into tears to see if it would relieve any tension. The papers in front of him became damp, and ink swirled together in blotchy Impressionism.
It was odd, he thought, that Sylvia had installed fully functional tear ducts into a being that should feel no sadness, but then he supposed there were other reasons to cry, too.
My God, had he just interrupted himself mid-thought with a second thought about the original’s validity? He needed his head examined.
But who should he see? He had never had to do this before.
Wait. There was a man who inspected each automaton before release. What was his name? Bits of memory bounced across his retina. Ahy, yes: Oswald Fitzworth, Certified Mentalistener, Graduated Cambridge 1877 (Summa Cum Laude), once had a dog named…
Montgomery slammed his head into his desk to stop the flow of information. Then he canceled all his meetings.
Oswald Fitzworth, M.L. said the gold plaque.
“Gold plaques don’t talk,” said Montgomery firmly, to himself but also to the plaque in case it was listening.
He tapped on, rapped on, whammed on the door. It hesitated, then yielded with a splintery sigh, revealing a dark hallway.
“My dear Mr. Blique, what did my poor door ever do to you?” mused a voice, crinkling and crackling like a candy wrapper.
Montgomery glanced at the pile of broken wood at his feet, then peered into the shadows. “Dr. Fitzworth, I presume. My apologies for the door.”
Lamps flickered into existence, bathing the hallway in a warm, comforting glow. Montgomery observed the doctor:
He wore a well-fitting grey suit and leaned gently on a mahogany cane. He had a luxuriant mustache, the kind that wilted on other men but stood proud on him. He probably combed it every morning after trimming his nose hairs. Montgomery wondered why he could visualize the doctor’s morning ablutions in such striking detail.
“Don’t worry about the door, Mr. Blique,” said Dr. Fitzworth kindly. “It was actually starting to get rather stuffy in here. Won’t you step inside?”
“Thank you,” said Montgomery, and he did. The hallway smelled like leather and lemons.
“Tea?” offered Dr. Fitzworth, raising his eyebrows to his hairline.
Dr. Fitzworth’s cane made muffled fwumps as they followed the rug into a spacious room.
It was a parlor, Montgomery decided, and was sparse yet thoughtfully decorated. A plush sofa was adorned by plush pillows and flanked by two even plushier armchairs. Montgomery couldn’t wait to plant his posterior into such plush. When he did, he sank into it like a ship.
Domestic clinks — the sweet sounds of tea and tradition — swarmed around Montgomery’s face like butterflies as Dr. Fitzworth busied himself with their beverages.
“Two cubes, thank you.”
“Oh, I’m afraid I don’t have cubes, Mr. Blique,” apologized the doctor. “But I do have these little fellows.” And from his sleeves, he produced two perfect spheres of crystallized sugar.
“I’m a bit of a marble enthusiast, you understand,” he chuckled. “I modified an old factory piece to fashion these for patients.”
“You keep those in your clothes?” Montgomery’s mind raced through all the related sanitary issues.
“Just some amateur sleight-of-hand, Mr. Blique,” Dr. Fitzworth explained and handed Montgomery his tea. “Isn’t it curious how altering the shape of something so familiar can cause discomfort,” he asked, eyes twinkling.
Dr. Fitzworth didn’t say that like a question. “What?” said Montgomery.
“Never mind. Why don’t you tell me why you came to see me, Mr. Blique,” suggested Dr. Fitzworth, interlacing his fingers and resting them on his lap.
Montgomery’s hands trembled, and he opened his mouth to respond. No words came out, so he took a sip of tea instead. Dr. Fitzworth waited patiently and professionally. A painful gulp later, and Montgomery was ready to speak:
“Doctor, I seem to be suffering from a breakdown of some kind. Which shouldn’t be possible.”
“It is not impossible, Mr. Blique. Can you describe your symptoms for me?”
“Well. I can’t focus, for one. My thoughts crack before I can form them. I’ve been questioning every action I take, I’m questioning my symptoms even now!”
Voicing his concerns was supposed to make him feel better, but he was feeling more wretched as he spoke. Dr. Fitzworth nodded sympathetically and set his cup down.
“Tell me, Mr. Blique: how much do you know about the composition of your brain?”
His brain. A scientific marvel. Yes, he knew this.
“My brain is composed of hundreds of parts that each contribute a different trait to my personality,” recited Montgomery from memory.
Dr. Fitzworth smiled. “That’s right. And my guess is that one of these parts has sustained some damage. Have you engaged in any intense physical activity today?”
Montgomery remembered smashing his head into the desk earlier and guessed that probably counted.
“Yes… I had a little accident at the office. Hit my head.”
“Ah. Well, it is likely that your ‘little accident’ might have knocked a few of those parts about.” Dr. Fitzworth consulted a silver watch. “I don’t have another appointment for another hour; would you like me to take a look?”
Gratitude burbled and bubbled through Montgomery like alcohol.
“That would be much appreciated, Doctor. How much do you charge?” he asked, retrieving a chunky checkbook.
Dr. Fitzworth waved the wallet away. “Please. I require no payment until the problem has been fixed. Shall we?” and he beckoned to an unassuming door which Montgomery had assumed led to a closet.
It led to a massive wine cellar — so massive that Montgomery couldn’t find the corners. Rows of casks stretched interminably in either direction and were marked with queer names like Empathy and Reason.
“Do you like my little collection?” inquired Dr. Fitzworth.
“It’s astonishing. Do you make them yourself?”
“I do. Perhaps once we’ve finished, we can have a glass of Pride, although I’m also quite partial to Joviality. But let’s take care of your headache first.”
Dr. Fitzworth motioned to a leather recliner that could have been equally at home in a barbershop. Montgomery sank into it with relief; there was a peace in being in the hands of a professional.
The doctor fussed with a tray of tools a short distance away, then approached Montgomery. A flip of a switch — and the light of a thousand suns illuminated Montgomery’s face from a lamp above. He squinted.
“Mr. Blique, in order to examine your brain, I’m going to have to unhinge your head. Are you comfortable with that?” asked Dr. Fitzworth.
“Of course,” said Montgomery.
“Splendid. Take this, it will dull the pain somewhat,” said Fitzworth, handing him a vermillion marble.
Montgomery placed it on his tongue, and it instantly disintegrated. A pleasant numbness seeped through his limbs while a light fog played in his peripheral vision.
This is nice, he thought. I can’t wait to be myself again.
He could feel the doctor peeling his forehead away like an onion, but the sensation was a mirage — distant and shimmering.
“Ah, good,” said the doctor’s voice, “it seems to have sprouted nicely.”
He tried to form words with his lips, but they seemed to be made of loose rubber now, so he compromised and asked, “Whuuuuhhh?”
“Oh, the seed of doubt I planted in your mind when I first met you,” said the doctor’s voice. “My goodness, but it’s gotten big. Would you like to see?”
Mirrors of all shapes — rectangles, ellipses, trapezoids — descended into Montgomery’s field of vision. For a moment, he could only see the doctor’s mouth, a neutral horizontal line. Then, he heard the grating of gears, the angle tilted, and Montgomery saw his brain.
It was made of hundreds of marbles, glinting in the lamp’s sterile fluorescence. They were of various sizes and sheens, but all were perfectly spherical. And pushing through them was a twisted weed of a plant, its tendrils wrapped tightly around some of the orbs.
He screamed and tried to sit up, but couldn’t; restraints held him firmly in place.
“Settle down, Montgomery,” said the doctor, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m sure we’ll find the root cause soon.”
Montgomery watched as a gloved hand plunged into his brain, rummaged for a moment, then lifted a golden marble up to the light. An itchy anxiety crawled over him.
“This is your confidence,” said the doctor, placing it carefully on a metal tray. “I have many already, but they come in such high demand that I like to maintain a healthy surplus,” he said, gesturing to the casks around them.
Montgomery’s eyes widened.
“That is correct, Montgomery: these barrels hold no wine. They are brimming with marbles like the ones in your head. I told you I was an enthusiast, didn’t I?” he chuckled.
The doctor removed another marble, this one bright pink. Hope drained from Montgomery like blood.
“Not all automaton brains are marble-based,” the doctor continued. “Sometimes I get unlucky and get one of the ‘earthy’ ones, filled with flowers or some other nonsense,” he sniffed with disgust.
Montgomery heard marbles rolling against each other as the gloved hand dipped back into his mind.
“Ah, diligence! Very rare these days,” explained the doctor.
Montgomery saw another marble — iron, flecked with rust — placed delicately on the tray next to its siblings.
“I knew your brain would have a few gems; no Attorney General could survive without something special.”
“You must stop,” croaked Montgomery. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“No, I’m afraid that is out of the question, my dear Montgomery; we won’t be stopping until we’ve extracted and sorted each piece of your mind. I’ve waited too long to add one of Sylvia’s creations to my collection.”
And so, Montgomery began to lose his mind…
This went on for some time. Tact, compassion, honesty…Montgomery couldn’t keep count of what he had lost because he couldn’t count any longer.
But Dr. Fitzworth was about to make a fatal error.
For Sylvia T. Price, knowing her work would be highly coveted by unsavory characters, had installed a failsafe: a single, black marble that convinced each automaton to behave as a human, with all the strengths and weaknesses that entailed.
And it is this marble that the good doctor has just removed…
Montgomery lurched back into consciousness. The numbness was gone, but he still felt cold. He was not angry; no, anger had been ripped from him hours prior. He had but one directive now: survive and return to Sylvia.
Rotating his right arm in its socket, he punched a fist through the back of the chair and into Dr. Fitzworth’s chest. A fountain of burgundy coated the fine leather. Montgomery’s fingers followed the pumping of blood to the heart, then ripped it out. The doctor had enough air for a final, incredulous gasp before collapsing.
Oswald Fitzworth, Certified Mentalistener, was Certified Dead.
Montgomery tore off the restraints and stood up, scalp swinging freely. He scanned his vicinity for the tray and found it, but no marbles; the doctor must have been depositing them in barrels throughout the procedure.
He had no idea what combination of marbles would restore his mind, but the raw materials were in this room. It would take a monstrous amount of time to try every possible configuration, and such potential tedium would certainly make lesser men tremble.
But Montgomery was no man and could stomach this procedural purgatory. He plucked a marble from a barrel of Diligence and dropped it in his head.
Then he tried another barrel.