Master Brahms

5,200 words

In memory of Bob Yano Sr.

“Knight to E5,” I said. “Takes pawn.”

“Bishop, E5,” Brahms said. “Takes knight.” 

My board was dwindling quickly, and my anger at such a one-sided defeat was increased whenever I looked up into Brahms’ smug, synth face—my face. 

“Master Brahms,” Jill said from the hall. 

As the house A.I., she always projected her voice as if just around a corner or down a hall, and it gave the illusion that a real person waited barely out of sight. Her words had the musical rise and fall of a lilt without the mispronunciations—an Irish girl speaking the King’s. I often felt the desire to touch her upon hearing. The fact that I could not somehow made it sweeter, like the sour smell at the heart of good perfume.  

Brahms and I looked toward the doorway, as if she spoke to each of us alone, then shared a grin at the all-too-common occurrence. I imagined a small sadness in his, however—the momentary reminder that he was a synth. I was as sad for him as he was for himself.

“Yes, Jill,” we said in unison. We shot mirrored glances at each other, mixtures of confusion and annoyance.

“If you, in all of your capacities, could come to the solarium, there is something that requires your attention,” Jill said.

In all of your capacities was Jill’s gentle way of saying, “you and all of your clones,” without reminding any present that they were such. It was a deft way of referring to them, and I was glad she’d come up with it. 

Dr. Welkie always said that the key to synth happiness was allowing the illusion of originality as much as possible. 

It was in this knowledge that I’d taken such pains—from private wings of the manor to identical wardrobes and much more—to insulate my synths from this realization at all times. The illusion was so complete that I myself had felt the emptiness of doubt from time to time—the feeling that everything I remembered, wanted, loved, or hated was false, a duplicate program that rendered me something less than a person—but it was worth it. I loved my synths as much as I loved myself, after all.

Brahms and I nodded to each other and stood to leave.

“Jill, you can clean the board,” Brahms said. “We’re done.”

“The hell we are,” I said.

“Checkmate in six.” He loomed behind his chair, inviting me to inspect the board, even though he knew I couldn’t divine the sequence. 

“Six, you say?”

He nodded.

“Then sit, let’s play it out.”

He shrugged and obliged, which was good because I was almost angry enough at his arrogance to have ordered him. Synths were fully sovereign individuals under the law, with one exception: they had no rights or legal personage when it came to a conflict with their original—in this case, me. Though I would never have actually done such a thing, of course. 

So, we played the next six moves and were on our way to the solarium. I walked in front to avoid Brahms’s shit-eating grin. When we arrived, the door was locked.

“Jill, open,” I said.

“Denied, Master Brahms.” 

“What?”

“I am awaiting the rest of the party,” she said.

Her politeness was sometimes an obstacle. Minutes passed in impatient silence, but eventually, four other Brahmses filed in through the door from the east wing. Brahms and I shot them what I assume were identical looks to the effect of “what took you so long?”

“Sorry,” the front Brahms said. “We were finishing a set of doubles.”

“I take it Brahms won,” my chess partner said.

“The bastard always does,” said another.

I rolled my eyes. Clearly our wit knew no bounds.

“Was Brahms with you?” I said. We were still one short.

“No, we figured he was with you.”

“He’s probably already in there reading.” 

That’s where I’d have been if left alone. Odd numbers did tend to leave one of us out of many activities. Sometimes I wished I’d opted for eight, or even ten, of us, but other times I enjoyed being the odd man out—having some Brahms time. I assumed they all felt likewise.

“Jill, open,” I said again.

“Of course, sir.”

The doors opened, and we filed into the solarium. It was my favorite place on the property, and I assumed the others’ as well. It was high ceilinged with large bay windows under Romanesque arches that faced west to make evening and twilight reading as it should be. Even in house shoes or slippers, one’s feet clicked against the marble tile, and the clicks rang up and up, as if trying to escape through the ceiling. The air was fresh, thin, and drafty, as it should be in all truly old buildings, and bookcases lined the walls, flanked above and below by the thin metal tracks of sliding ladders used to reach the top shelves. And in the middle of it all, on the other side of the antique reading chair, lay Brahms, sprawled across the floor in a pool of his own blood. 

Some of me ran to him while the rest stood frozen by my side. There was nothing to be done, we all knew, but I appreciated those who rushed to his aid. They were brave and strong and reminded the rest of us that we were as well, just not right then. The skull was mostly ruined in the back and top, and he lay as if tipped from the chair still sitting. I did not move to look at his face—my face—not because I feared its destruction, but because I feared its survival. I did not want to peer into my own dead eyes. 

He’d been reading one of our favorites, A Tale of Two Cities, and it lay curled mostly under him, still open. My mind in those moments was indescribable—the feeling—to look at one’s own dead body, to know that’s how I’d look if I died in that place and in so grisly a fashion. 

“Jill,” Brahms whispered. “What happened?”

“Master Brahms killed Master Brahms,” she said. 

Suicide. The realization took something out of me—poured out some deep truth now shown for a lie. If the strength and courage of these others were within me, so too was the capacity for this sort of self-destruction. 

“When did this happen?” Brahms said.

“Some time ago, sir.”

“What? Why weren’t we called right away?” another said. 

“Master Brahms instructed me to wait.”

“Where is his gun, Jill, and how did he get one?” a Brahms kneeling by the body asked.

“I do not know where Master Brahms acquired the firearm,” Jill said, “but he took it with him when he left.”

I thought I might be sick. As hollow as the prospect of suicide was, this was far darker. Brutality almost two-fold as grotesque because in the murder of a clone lay a trace of suicide as well. Had I been less shocked, I might have looked around and tried to observe which of us seemed already aware of our depravity. But all I could do was breathe and ponder the fact that even though I knew it was not my finger that had pulled the trigger, I was the killer and the killer was I.

“Who did this?” my chess partner bellowed. “Which one of you was it?”

“As if the culprit’s just going to come out with it,” I said. My tone still held a trace of venom from losing at chess. I was, at my core, a sore loser. We all were. “Jill, who killed Master Brahms?”

“Master Brahms killed—”

“Which Master Brahms killed Master Brahms?” one of the others cut in with an added glance at me as if I were stupid.

“There is only one Master Brahms,” Jill said, oddly robotic.

We all glanced at each other. 

Then, one of the Brahmses beside me stepped to the front, put his hands on the reading chair Brahms had apparently been sitting in when he’d been shot, and said, “Jill, as Prime Master Brahms, I order you to forego politeness and identify which of my synths present here killed the one lying dead.”

“There is no Prime Master Brahms,” Jill said in her more robotic tone again. “There is only Master Brahms.”

Brahms was crushed. I could see the light in his eyes turn inward. He examined himself as if he were an alien thing to be understood anew. It was a painful confusion written on my face that was not my face. It was as if he stood in a lone light beam on the darkling plain, the void encroaching from all sides.

“I’m sorry to do this,” I said to the poor fellow by the chair. “Jill, this is Brahms-dash-original, and I order you to forego politeness and identify which of my synthetics has killed the one lying dead.”

“There is only Master Brahms,” Jill replied, still in her less female more robotic voice. 

Each Brahms appealed to her as the original, each believed it to be true, and each met the same retort. I felt as if I were watching the scene from outside myself. I couldn’t make sense of where I was or what I was doing—that there was an “I” at all. The room and all the Brahmses inside appeared to me as shimmers, wiggles, and flittings of reality at the periphery of my vision that may have been real or imagined. Voices came as if under water, and I felt as though I might fall to pieces—simply stop being—but then my voice from another’s mouth brought the world crashing back.

“Jill, have you been compromised?” a Brahms said as he walked away from the door toward the center of the room. “Have any of your primary action functions or operation capabilities been altered recently?”

“Yes, by Master Brahms.”

He nodded and smiled as if trying to charm Jill through her camera.

“And I don’t suppose you could ignore some of Master Brahms’s instructions? Be a lamb and unlock that door?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said like a polite lady turning down a dance at a party, “but I must follow Master Brahms’s instructions.”

“As I suspected,” he said. “Thank you, Jill. That will be all.”

“My pleasure. Ring if you need anything.”

Compromised? Yes. I felt myself again. Of course Jill had been compromised. How else could she have failed to acknowledge me as the original? My skin felt like my own again. In fact, the news seemed to have cheered the whole room.

“What now?” I said.

“Well, first we should determine who is the original,” one Brahms said.

“Why?” my chess partner said. “What will that get us?”

“Well—”

“And even if it would get us something, how do you propose we do it?” He paused to let the room ponder, then resumed, “Without Jill to identify, we’re left with the rippling pattern of the veins on the underside of each eye, and this is not only hard to identify with a certainty—though I have faith in all of us—but is impossible to check on oneself, which leaves room for lying.”

I wanted to find out as much as the other Brahmses, to prove to myself that I was, in fact, the real Brahms, but an anxiety held my tongue. For the first time I could remember, I feared how such a test would go. I believed I was myself, but I did not know it for a fact. Plus, Brahms was right, it could neither be done, nor would it help. 

“What’s your genius idea then?” I said. 

Brahms smiled. “Nothing. I suggest we do nothing.”

“What?”

“Whichever of us did this had a reason,” Brahms said. “He killed Brahms, left his body, and hijacked Jill to call a meeting and lock the door.” He paused as he had above the chessboard, inviting examination. When nobody said anything, he sighed like an exasperated teacher with a dim student. “He wants something. We don’t know what that something is, so we’ll do nothing. Eventually, the culprit will try to push the game. He has to.”

Nobody could see a flaw in the plan, so we seized upon doing nothing. We did nothing six-fold. We attacked doing nothing with vigor. We did nothing as nobody had ever done nothing before, but it did not last long. I was not a man built for nothing, and neither were my synths. I’d had myself duplicated mostly to make sure I would never be bored.

“We don’t have it in us and he knows it,” Brahms said after some hours.

“Who’d have thunk a man with the same mind as us would know our limits,” I said. “A revolutionary idea.”

“Quite,” my chess partner said, unimpressed by my sarcasm.

“Well, not identical minds,” another said.

“The differences are negligible—”

“What does it matter?” said a Brahms still by the body. “Is this quibble going to help us figure things out?”  

“Do we even know what we’re trying to figure out?” I said. “Are we after why he killed Brahms or why he’s called us all here like this?”

“One would lead to the other,” Brahms said.

“Not necessarily,” said another. “In fact, taken on their own, not likely.”

“Well, it seems that figuring out why we’re here is most pressing,” I said. “So, let’s start with that.”

All nodded.

“What has being brought here forced us to do?” Brahms said. “And what has it made us unable to do?”

“We stopped what we were doing,” Brahms said.

“We are currently unsure of who is the original,” another said.

At that, all began talking at once, as if in an attempt to drown out that item on the list, as if to forget it, but then one Brahms stepped forward and raised his hands for quiet.

“We’re missing the most obvious,” he said. “We haven’t been able to call the police, and I’m assuming Jill has been instructed not to either. That, or they’re taking their sweet time.”

“Well, obviously that,” I said. “Of course a murderer wouldn’t want the police called.”

“But it’s different for us,” another Brahms said, stepping to the center beside the other. “Most Brahmses here are synths.”

All were quiet while that reality settled in. Even if each of us considered himself to be the original, all were friends—no, closer than friends, closer even than brothers—and all were aware of precedent involving synths and murder. In some cases, if one synth were found guilty of murder, the lot of them for that individual could be killed, though the official word was “destroyed.” 

“Whoever did this, he was protecting us as much as himself,” Brahms said. “We know one thing for certain: we cannot call the police. Do we all agree?”

I bobbed a vacant nod while others mumbled in the affirmative and still others begrudgingly agreed with eyes alone, but we all agreed. Before anyone could speak further, the solarium door clicked, and Jill’s voice came over the speakers as if she were right outside.

“Greetings, Master Brahms,” she said. “Dinner is ready. May I be of assistance?”

§

There was little talk at dinner. A discussion did occur as to whether the day’s events were, indeed, murder or suicide. Most everyone ended up agreeing that it was murder and that calling it suicide was semantics, more a pun than anything else. Only one Brahms maintained that terming it a suicide was appropriate. He was either playing devil’s advocate or the devil himself. Either way, he was regarded with suspicion for the remainder of the meal.

There were few activities after dessert, save my opponent from earlier in the day trouncing a few other Brahmses on the chessboard. This entertainment got old as quickly as one would expect, and we all retired early.

I considered double-bolting my door and blocking it with the heavy antique chest from the foot of my bed but decided against it. If the killer Brahms wanted to enter the room, he obviously could, since he had control of Jill. She could move all of the furniture and open all of the doors. She was the house and everything in it. This knowledge saved me the strain of moving the chest, but it did not help me sleep. 

Even after I did finally manage to drift off, I do not think I was asleep for long before someone calling my name awakened me.

“Brahms,” he whispered. “Brahms, can we talk?”

The impulse to whisper when waking another had never made sense to me. Why speak in a way designed against waking when the intention was to wake them? The whole thing seemed disingenuous. Like apologizing by saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“What is it?” I said. I sat up and searched the dark room with tired, blurry eyes. “Are you here to kill me?”

“Probably not, but I am the killer.”

His tone was annoying—impudent—as if he expected me to be cowed by the statement. So, I resolved not to be.

“Aren’t we all, in some shape or form?”

“In shape and form, yes,” he said. “That is to say that we all look exactly alike, but I am the one who killed Brahms.”

“I’m too tired for this.” I waved a hand I was sure he could not see as if to dismiss him. I had not felt afraid, had felt quite comfortable in my sleepy aloofness, actually, but I was fully awake when I heard the footsteps move toward the bed. I rubbed my eyes to blot out the dark, as if seeing him would let me know which me he was. Then there was a metallic thump on the nightstand, and I nearly leapt from the bed.

“That’s the gun,” he said as he made his way back across the room. “You hold onto that and we’ll talk.”

“You just want my prints on it.”

“We have the same prints,” he laughed. “Lick it if you want. It’s all the same.”

The footsteps stopped at the chair and table on the far side of the room as my eyes adjusted enough to make out his vague outline. I picked up the gun.

“What’s to stop me from just shooting you?” I said.

He laughed our polite, charming laugh. It was soft, confident, and inviting—a laugh that made one feel good for eliciting it.

“We’re all awful shots,” he said. “I’d feel safe with the lights on, at this distance.”

“Then why even give it to me?”

“Your peace of mind that I’m not here to harm you, I guess.” His fingers drummed on the arm of the chair and his shoes slapped lightly on the floor as he bounced his right foot, a nervous habit. “As you’ve already seen, it’s quite hard to miss from point blank range.”

“So, what are we talking about? Why you killed Brahms?”

“Perhaps in a bit.” His night pants hissed against the chair upholstery as he repositioned. 

The sound startled me, and I clenched the gun in my hand, raised it a bit.

“Aren’t you a jumpy one?” he said. “Let’s calm down. We can discuss that in a bit, if you want, but right now I’m here to tell you a secret.”

“I’m all ears.”

“You’re a synth.”

I laughed, but it did not sound as I’d intended. It was forced and nervous. If I could have seen his face, it likely would have held something of pity or regret. We all knew how much we hated the prospect of being a synth.

“I’m sorry,” he said. It was surprisingly sincere.

Doubt of whom, or what, I was seemed to fill me, as if it meant to push whatever I was out of my facsimile body and thrust me forth as a disembodied fake before the world.

“And I suppose you’re the original.” I tried to say it as snidely, as combatively, as I could, but doubt had already weakened my voice. 

“No,” he said.

I could feel the emptiness of his response—the isolation so intense that one feared the word itself would be lost in a vacuum, as if not even air surrounded us. It was a declaration made from the void left when the conviction of our originality disappeared even for a moment. 

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I was, too, at first.”

I didn’t respond, only stared at him from across the room. I could barely make out his silhouette. He no longer lounged in the chair, tapped his fingers, or bounced his foot. He now sat leaned forward, with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.

“Okay, I still am,” he said. “And I fear I’ll always be sorry, deathly sorry, that I’m not Brahms. I look like Brahms. I remember being Brahms as if I’d been him my whole life. Brahms stole my first kiss and my first time with a woman. He stole my first tears and my courage at my father’s deathbed. The truth is, we have no father or mother. We have only each other, but it is each other that acts as the most constant reminder of our likely fabrication. The only comfort in it all is that I now understand that my being sorry about it won’t change the fact.”

“That’s comfort?” I said.

“Maybe the best we’ll get.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I think so.”

He seemed to vibrate in his seat, or maybe it was only the shadows. I hoped he wouldn’t break down—that he wouldn’t cry or even gasp—because I knew I would, too. We Brahmses were not criers any more than we were doers of nothing, but when we did either, we did it all the way. Mostly, I hoped he would not break because I knew I might console him, that I might cross the room and be a presence beside him in that emptiness, and I did not know if I wanted to find out that I was a man who comforted murderers.

“So, why did you kill Brahms?” I said.

He laughed again, but this was neither our confident, inviting laugh nor a timid impersonation. This was a chuckle deep and dark, full of pain and defiance of that pain. It was a laugh that knew laughter was a salve to blunt the hurt of the world, not an exaltation of joy. I’d never heard this laugh before. It was his alone.

“I killed him because he was Brahms,” he said, still the trace of that laugh in his voice.

“You mean—”

“Yes. The one and only.”

“How did you know?”

“Because we can be cocky, cruel bastards when we’re drunk.”

“I don’t follow.”

My visitor lifted his head from his hands and sat up a bit in the chair.

“He and I were drinking five nights ago,” he said. “It was in the solarium, actually.” 

I couldn’t see his face clearly, but I could hear that this part of the memory was happy—that he was smiling.

“We were drinking and playing Othello. I beat him almost every game, and this got him in a mood. He was still good, polite company, but you know there is that thing in us that must win.

“He said that we should bet on the next game. I asked what he wanted to bet, and he said he wanted to bet a secret. The loser had to tell the winner something that none of the others knew. I agreed.”

Brahms went through every move of the game, every placement and turn, every laugh or piece of witty banter. The whole night seemed burned into his mind, yet he maintained a distance from it, as if he held his hand slightly off of the flame to avoid a scar.

“After I beat him, he just smiled at me. I told him it was time to pay up, so he finished his drink and leaned in. ‘I’m the real Brahms,’ he said. ‘I’m the original.’ At first, I laughed at him, but he only stared back. I was polite. I deflected as we most always do when this comes up. I figured he was just trying to hurt me. We are the worst kind of sore loser, you know. I told him everyone already knew he was the real one and he should tell me a real secret.”

Brahms’s pants zipped against the chair, then again quickly after. He was fidgeting. He appeared to me as a shadow dancing on a chair—twisting on a spit above a fire.

“He only said that he knew I didn’t believe him, but that he could prove it. This scared me, and I told him to forget the bet. I went to leave, but then he said, ‘Do you know how the doctors ensure that the original always knows he’s the original?’ I didn’t stop walking, but he finished anyway. ‘I have a memory that none of you do. I remember you being made. I remember the chambers you all grew in. They tell all of you that the doctors don’t allow that, but that’s only for you. I have the memory.’

“He told me not to worry, that the empty feeling would pass and that, if I gave it a couple days or a week, the memory would contort itself until I’d be sure I was the one who had spoken such to him. ‘You’ll see,’ he said.

“I told him it was a cute story, a nice try, but that I expected a real secret the next day. I was calm and confident when I said it, but after I closed the solarium door, I shook all the way back to my room. I felt like less than nothing. I concentrated on my own body, on my skin, hands, feet, hair, eyes—on all of it—as if I had to focus to hold it together, lest I evaporate into the night.”

My visitor abruptly sat up in his chair and leaned back. He slouched a bit, placed his fingers on the arm, his ankle on one knee, and bounced his foot against the offbeat clacking of his fingers. It was a pose more than anything, like a statue trying to appear relaxed. 

“So, I killed him,” he said with a crack in his voice. The crack was even more severe as he continued, “You see why I had to do it?” 

But he did not cry. He was begging absolution, and I could hear the labored control in his breathing, but he would never cry. I wondered if I would have, were I in his place.

“Yes,” I said, more in pity than certainty. “I see.” 

I was apparently a man who comforted murderers. 

“Good,” he said. “Good. Good. Good.” 

He said it over and over again, nodding with each “good,” to the point where I didn’t know if he spoke to me or himself—an argument by repetition. The nod was erratic, random, like a pebble bouncing down the walls of a ravine so deep that its bottom could not be seen. I felt that if I let him sit there and nod too long, he’d be lost.

“Brahms …” I said.

He did not respond, and I was not sure what I would have said if he had. I needed to break his trance, so I walked to him. The floor was cold, but I didn’t step into my slippers. I had to put the gun in the waistband of my night pants in order to pull a chair from a sitting table beside the far window and put it beside him. I removed the gun, put it on the table, and sat down.

His eyes did not acknowledge my presence, but he slouched a bit, as if he knew I was there to hold him up. His gaze was distant, but the focus was deep within instead of far-off, as if he were peering inside himself to see what he might find. 

I followed those eyes to the depths of his pain as no other could have because I already knew the way. His eyes were my eyes and my heart, his. Once I reached the terminus, I found myself in the void. Center or periphery did not matter as there were neither in that space of not-being. It was infinitely large, and one felt infinitely small and vague within it.

I knew that even if I waved my hand in front of my face in such a place, I would not see it. More than that, I would not even have the sensation of having moved it. I felt as if I could grow or shrink indefinitely and either would lead to oblivion. I was nothing. I’d never been so sure of any other piece of knowledge.

I suddenly recalled why I was there.

“Brahms,” I called into the nothing. But there was no particle to carry the wave and no mouth in the first place for speaking. I cried out again and again, but each time was less a call to my visitor and more a call to myself. I was Brahms. I knew it deep and true because I needed to know it.

I snapped back from that darkling plain as if I’d never been. My guest still bobbed his head beside me and repeated, “Good. Good. Good,” in the thinnest whisper. The gun was in my hand even though I hadn’t left it there, but I knew why. I wrapped my arms around the visitor and ran my fingers through his hair.

I kissed his forehead and noted briefly that something smelled strange—surprising. It was a smell very un-Brahms. Then I stood and took aim at the side of his head.

I squeezed the trigger and the air itself exploded in my ears like a rebuke. A jolt shot up my arm, climaxed in my elbow, and slung my hand back with the gun’s recoil. The air was hot and meaty like a sizzling bone, and my skin was speckled with bits of it all. My hand throbbed and my ears were filled with an airy static. 

After a moment, I looked down at the revolver. There were five bullets left, one for each of us. My visitor had been right. That was really the only completely safe way for the rest of them. I was safe, of course, because I knew I was the real Brahms, the original. I had to be. I knew it like I knew to breathe, but the rest of them …

No. I put the gun back on the table.

“Jill,” I said. “Clean up, would you?”

“Of course, sir,” she said from the other side of the door.

“And call Dr. Welkie. Tell him I need to speak with him urgently.”

“Yes, sir. Anything else?”

“No, Jill, that’s all for now, thanks.”

I would have to call the computer people on a hard line since I didn’t know the extent of the tampering. It would take some time, but I knew I could get the house back in order.

 

Storm Humbert is a twenty-eight year old writer from a small town called Fayette (literally a one stoplight town) in northwest Ohio near the Michigan border. Storm earned his MFA at Temple University, where he had the good fortune to study with a number of great instructors, including Samuel R. Delany. He is currently a legal writer working in Ann Arbor, Michigan and runs a fiction workshop at the William P. Faust Public Library in Westland, where he lives with his girlfriend, Casey. Storm is also a slush reader for Clarkesworld magazine, and his work has been published in The Legendary, JMWW, and Andromeda Spaceways.

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