Cuffy: Part 1
Content Warning: Violence
"Cuffy" is a novelette set in the year 2500 about a young black man who has earned a seat in an international sculpture competition. His sculpture, Black Power, has gained the interests of powerful people who seek to interpret it for themselves. All the while, his extracurricular activities reliving slave narratives in VR from the POV of the slave master have become increasingly dangerous for his future. "Cuffy" will be published weekly on Argot in six total installments along with a continuously evolving title illustration by Tiffani Gomez. This is Part 1.
“Poor little thing, I try tell him, but he don’t listen. You know how it is, he just don’t listen! You’re not gonna hurt him now, are you? They’s a time and a place. Poor little thing. He didn’t mean nothing by it. Just a time and a place, that’s all.”
The master lowered his knife and listened to the old woman grovel beneath him. Others watched beyond the perimeter of torchlight, peeking out from the darkness.
“I told him, don’t run. I said, don’t you run, but they’s a time and a place for everything. I told him that and now, it’s just...look at you.”
Her bloody son writhed in agony underneath the master’s foot. She wormed over to his side and stretched over his body like a blanket, steady flinching against the unknown.
“Don’t you worry about a thing.” She screamed over him. “I’m gonna make your favorite tonight. You ‘member those beets, you was eyin? They sho looked good! That’s your favorite. I’ll put em in a stew for you, and maybe old Jamphua might pick up the fiddle, cut the slip and quick, our feet’ll be turned out just like that. Why, you couldn’t ask fo more!”
The master cringed under the torchlight and kicked her in the face. The impact turned her head, but her large body remained draped over him.
“No, no, no, no, please, he didn’t mean it! Where’s it come from? There’s a time and a place, sir, but not this, not this right here, not thi-”
He motioned for the overseer to lift her off the boy and stabbed the torch into the ground. A struggle ensued. The overseer grabbed the old woman’s ankles, and tried to pull her free, but she wouldn’t budge.
“No! Get off me, no, no...sir...No, get off me. Can you hear me? He didn’t mean it! No...NO!”
She clung to the boy like a skin, ripping and tearing the wet cloth as he pulled, opening his wound further and further. The overseer switched tactics and attempted to unclench the old woman’s calloused fingers from the cotton shirt, but it was the boy’s screams that finally pried her hands loose. She let go and the overseer threw her into the dirt. She wailed, realizing her mistake and tried to crawl back, but the overseer got between them and her head bumped into his shins. She looked up at him, saw his grinning face and made to crawl around him, but he danced with her, giggling and scooting just ahead of her clumsy maneuvers until she started begging him, reaching for him, but it did nothing and he laughed the devil’s counterpoint turning her cries into a single word of screeched molasses.
“You ever heard a please sincere as that, boss?”
The master motioned for the rope. Behind them, some of the children were told to go inside, others were made to watch. The old woman learned something new. No was what she said.
The word became a memory. She became newborn.
The overseer unhitched the rope from the tree and let the body fall to the ground. It hit wrong and no became everything. Others bravely stepped from the shadows and wrapped their arms around what was left, urging her back into the darkness. She didn’t move, her old coiled body, dried of will like a stump, lay in the dirt, a slow twist. They took her by the hands, lifted her to her feet, and miraculously, she began to let. One of them grinned relief. The master saw it and spit on the ground like a gun shot. It triggered their eyes and they moved even faster, pressing their pittance and their knowing quiet and their brutalized hands against her old body. They pushed her inch by inch, until they knew their skin had become indistinguishable from the shadows around them.
The master pulled his torch from the earth and saw white flash in the distance. He held the torch higher, peering into the dark. Someone began to clap. Another laughed. An out of tune fiddle hopped out of the silence and began bouncing around the screams sounding no jollier than crickets. They were all smiling now. He began to hyperventilate and his torch hand slacked.
“Oh God, there they go again.” Said the overseer and set to work on the body.
They started to dance, though they lit no fire, and willed themselves to move under the trees in and out like black ripples across a dead pond. Their anonymity, the one advantage of their skin, propelled their feet faster and faster like they might soon cast off the dark.
The master watched them from a distance, his shoulders heaving, torch in hand. He let the flame draw nearer and nearer to his eyes until the orange and red had licked every drop of night from his skin. Then, he put his face fully in the fire and made no noise within the torches’ flames. Her screams could still be heard over the fiddle and a cold wind swept across it all.
“What you want me to put this, boss?”
The master removed his face from the fire and threw the torch on the ground. He looked up at his overseer. The man asked a second time and bounced the body on his shoulder for emphasis.
“Just put him down.”
He grinned and let the body fall from his shoulders.
“Let ‘em see if they know what’s good for the-.” The overseer could not finish his sentence, because the master slit his throat. Gouts of blood spewed out of his nec-
Suddenly, everything washed away except for Dewitt Cuffy. He uncurled his fingers from the digital knife, sat up, stretched, and unplugged.
A smiling face appeared behind a white monitor across from Cuffy’s haptic lounge chair. The young man’s eyes were wide with question. “So, What’d you think, Cuff?”
He said nothing.
On school nights mostly, twice a week, sometimes three, he would come to the holo-store and sit with this one particular program, “The Runaway.” He and Bill had been adjusting it for months, but it’d be hard to tell they changed anything from its original programming. For all intents and purposes, it was still the same story they’d started with; a Virtual Reality movie shot from the point of view of the slave master. The script remained the same. The boy is caught by the overseer and is brought before the master. The master stabs him. The mother pleads. The master lynches the boy. The mother wails. The slaves pull her away and dance in the darkness. The master and the overseer laugh. Repeat.
VR was a movie. However, these new holo-tapes allowed you to interact deviate from the script and trigger the AI reactions. Every deviation that he embarked on was recoded into the program, refreshing it with information, the AI were now gaining faster and faster responses to anything Cuffy could do. In fact, the characters were starting to improvise.
VR used to be just a movie, but it was becoming something else.
Bill rolled his chair from behind his monitor. “Seriously, what’d you think?”
“They were smiling, Bill. Did you see see that?”
“Who the overseer?”
Cuffy shook his head. “No...no. The slave helping the old woman. He smiled when she got up. He looked relieved.”
“You didn’t code that?”
“And the others,” Cuffy stretched in the chair and sat up, “others in the darkness. I could see their teeth. You didn’t-”
“Nope. And how did you see them anyway? Their AI isn’t supposed to function unless they are within the torchlight.”
Cuffy said nothing.
“Anyway, why’d you kill the overseer, man?”
Again, Cuffy didn’t answer and wiped something from his face. The young technician bent a little from behind his desk, trying to get into Cuffy’s eye line.
“You didn’t get to see the overseer’s new dance at the en-”
“Did you re-write the old woman’s dialogue?”
“You liked that?”
“What’s wrong with beets?”
Cuffy shook his head. “I told you. Stick to core motivation and memory. Emotional responses triggering generalized belief and value contradictions. Don’t write their dialogue word for word.”
“What’s wrong with beets?” asked Bill, thinly concealing a smile.
Cuffy showed him his palms. “She was just wondering about dinner.”
Two women walked between them and disrupted their gaze. Cuffy rubbed his head and stood up watching them plug into a console on the other side of the room. One of them looked back at him, then quickly turned away.
Bill frowned and began tapping his finger against his console. “Hey man? What’s a matter, you liked what the old woman said before?”
“I could change it back-Aww, what is it?” Cuffy made a face at him.
“I was trying to get psychological, Cuff. I thought that’s what you wanted. Under extreme stress, this lady starts talking about dinner, trying to find some safe, normal thing to think about. You know, something comforting.”
“So, it was intentional?”
“Exactly. And I even thought a step farther, like, what if she was trying to throw you off, confuse the master with the beet talk, you know what I’m saying? Did it work?”
Cuffy shook his head and grabbed his back pack from the floor. “No matter how complexly you write the dialogue, it will not sound as sincere as improvisation coming from their emotional matrices. Manipulate that, not the dialogue.”
Bill sighed. Bill was older than Cuffy, graduating the year before from Templeton Private. They’d met in History class. Cuffy had done all his homework in school, and Bill let him use the holo store free. At first, Cuffy simply loaded up one of the countless slave narratives in the database, until Bill showed him the interactive one he’d coded on his time. Bill asked his opinion, Cuffy gave it. They’d been working on it for six months.
“I was actually thinking we could show it to my boss this time, “ Bill leaned over trying to put himself into Cuffy’s eye line again. “Finally, put it into the holo-store’s international rotation, let the public start buying it. Get those royalties, son!” Cuffy said nothing. Bill shifted gears. “I’m afraid our windows closing. I’m checking the databases all the time to see if anyone’s beat us to it.” Bill watched Cuffy gather himself to leave. “It’s becoming an obsession of mine, Cuff. I saw a school shooting go up last week, prisoner execution the week before that. You know there’s already several rape ones. It’s only a matter of time before someone else publishes the first fully interactive slave narrative. So far we’ve been lucky, but the longer we wait-”
“It’s not ready, Bill. But, it’s your IP. You coded it. Do with it what you want.”
“That’s not fair, Cuff. You know I wouldn’t do that, but I think it’s good as is. And, don’t you need the money anyway? I mean-”
Cuffy’s face immediately changed into something different than it was before. Bill stopped talking and looked at the ground.
After a moment, Cuffy spoke, “I won’t put my name on it. At least not yet.”
“C’mon, that’s it?” Bill stood up. “I thought we could hang out or something, you know like-.” “Nah, I got to get home. Catch you later.”
“Pssh, all right. Later, Cuff.”
Cuffy allowed the young man’s hand to wrap around his and left the holo-store.
Outside, Cuffy paused on the stoop of the metallic building and watched a group of suits stampede down the sidewalk, chattering into their phones. Cuffy listened to their words garble over each other, but they continued, trusting their phone’s advanced programming to filter out everything but their own voice. Some of them gave Cuffy a look, veering slightly away, putting an extra distance between themselves and the young man as they passed. Most didn’t even notice him.
Cuffy waited for them to walk by and scanned up the metallic environment around him. Immaculate silver buildings loomed, stretching upward, curving inward, blocking out the setting sun. The pale light of eclipse glowed behind them, and Cuffy held his hand to it, creating contrast with Manhattan.
“Hello. Dewitt. Cuffy. We see that you have not registered to vote.”
Cuffy dropped his hand and waved away the ad-drone that had snuck up behind him. The motion didn’t register.
“As an...18 year old-”
He turned around and made the gesture obvious to the drone’s sensor.
“Of course,” it said. He watched it zoom off to bother someone else and took out his phone.
The image of a man in a black pin stripe suit floated up, gathering pixels from the air like dust. The man was standing on a podium gesticulating wildly in front of a large banner that read “ZEPHIE/NIX FOR PRESIDENT – 2500. The Change You Want to See!” An image for sound appeared beside it with a question mark, but Cuffy shook his head. The question mark disintegrated, and he watched the man silently wave his arms around for another moment before swiping it off the screen, making way for the next advertisement.
“Home,” he said to his phone.
Nothing happened. Sometimes, his old phone did not recognize voice commands.
Cuffy brought the phone closer to his mouth to speak his destination louder, but before he could, his own face materialized in front of him...into him. He jerked backward, dodging the holo-projection and nearly knocking over the trashcan behind him. A small shudder ran down his spine and he looked around him, but he was alone with himself.
The letters “ISC - 2500” appeared above his face chiseled into a block of white marble. A question mark appeared beside his head. He nodded.
“Only five weeks left until the 50th annual International Sculpture Competition kicks off right here in Central Park! Twenty world renowned sculptors have been selected to compete this year including New York City’s own urban wonder, Dewitt Cuffy!”
A spinning photo of his previous sculpture, Gargoyle, appeared beside the image of his face. A 10 foot imploding diamond, captured mid-crush, forever breaking, never completely shattering. It had won him some acclaim.
“Home!” He shouted.
The ad continued.“He swept New York’s state competition with his amazing sculpture, Gargoyle. Now, we’ll see how our homegrown hero can compete against the world’s finest.”
The image of his face begin to change. The edges of his mouth were being tilted up into a smile, as if he were happy about the whole thing, as if he were grateful. Cuffy shoulders began to heave.
“The stakes are high, especially for young Cuffy and his mother-”
“HOME!” He screamed.
The sound shut off and his face swept away into nothing. “50. Dollars.” said the phone.
Cuffy sighed. “Fine.”
A transport beam picked him up and put him in his mother’s kitchen in the south side of Brooklyn.
“I told you we don’t have the money for that, Dewey.”
Cuffy rolled his eyes. “I was on the other side of town, Mom. There was no way I was going to make it back in time for dinner.”
“The other side of town? How much that cost?”
“Bullshit, it cost 35. How much it cost?”
“It ain’t nothing, all right. I’ll pay you back.” He made to leave, but she stood in his way. She was still wearing her bus uniform, her name tag still clipped to the pocket of her shirt.
“Where were you?” She asked.
“You still got your id badge on,” he said.
She removed it hastily and asked again. “Where were you?”
“I sure as hell know you ain’t spending my money at that damn-”
“Nah.” He shook his head and set his pockets on the counter. “I told you, It’s free.”
“It’s not fully responsive AI,” he said. “Not yet.”
She waited, expecting more, but he offered nothing else. “And what’d you see at the holo-store this time?”
“It’s just a pre-program. My friend Bill works there.”
“Wasn’t another one of those sex things, was it?”
“You know I found that drive in your room a few weeks ago.” She said. “Plugged it into the TV. Saw the whole filthy thing.”
His eyes glanced left.
“You looking at girls, Dewey?”
He shook his head and studied the floor.
“Mmm hmm.” She put her hand on his chin, lifted his head. She smiled at him. “How’s the statue coming?”
He showed her his teeth and twisted away from her hand. “Sculpture...It’s good.” he said, adding. “I’m almost done with it.”
“Yeah? I didn’t think it’d ever be done.” she said, bending down to check the food in the grower. “Can I see it?”
“No.” He said to her back.
“You haven’t had to submit public photos yet?”
“Well, can I see it anyway?” She asked again, sprinkling generic protein into the cloner.
“Nah, let me finish it.”
“It’s that good, huh?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I’m still working on it.”
“You damn well better win that big competition money, so you can pay me back for all these transport bills you keep gettin.” She said, straightening, wiping her hands off her pants.
He clicked his tongue at her and backed into his bedroom. “Dinner’ll be ready in ten, Dewey!”
“Okay.” He yelled back and shut the door.
Along with Cuffy’s holo-store activities with slave programs, he was also a sculptor. From a very young age, he exhibited an almost preternatural talent for the art. Maybe in other times, in other worlds, his gift might’ve gone unnoticed, but the advent of the Trans-shift modeling software made the art of sculpture internationally ubiquitous, especially in schools.
As soon as Cuffy had control of the material, strange and utterly compelling sculptures emerged from his efforts, winning competition after competition, garnering attention, and finally winning a scholarship to the most prestigious private high school in New York.
Since they knew it was his passion, Templeton Private had given Dewitt Cuffy a state-of-the-art Trans-Shift room to work with behind the gymnasium. And because he was a senior with an immaculate academic record and many more credits than he needed to graduate, they let him have the final class period of the day all to himself. Or so they said. There was some speculation.
It seemed a big coincidence the Trans-Shift corporation just so happened to grant the state-of-the- art room to Templeton Private the very same year Cuffy had been admitted via full scholarship. And mere chance, the specs for that room had found their way into Cuffy’s locker, day one. And when it came time for the ISC committee to announce the 20 people selected to participate in the competition, it seemed odd when Cuffy’s name appeared alongside the other 19 world famous sculptors. Their names, all of them,
intellectuals, respected figures of culture, people of renown, written next to his own simple Dewitt Cuffy. It didn’t make sense. Again, there was some speculation, but no one said anything to his face.
He unlocked the door and stepped inside. Usually, the lights came on automatically, but something was wrong. Everything was dark. He fumbled a hand against the wall and flicked the manual switch. The lights blinked, and from the contrast came his statue.
A 25 foot wide black ball appeared. 20 black poles extended from it in all directions, filling up the room like rays of sun. At the end of each black pole, affixed to the small of their back, were 20 enormous photorealistic black humans performing 20 different things:
Swimming, dancing, laughing, playing basketball, hanging from a rope, reading, giving a speech, pushing a broom, blowing bubbles, praying, writing, singing, crying, looking through a folder, stealing a purse, running, pointing a gun, giving birth, picking cotton.
Each of them, though larger than life, looked real; right down to the molecular level, all of them, appeared inscrutably human. Coat after coat of microscopic textures applied to their shiny black surface had created the appearance of living breathing sentience.
Cuffy walked around it, again and again, re-familiarizing himself with the space. He opened his phone, accessing the Trans-Shift interface, and sifted through the programming dimensions. He paused on one of the figures, looked at the reality, and made a decision. He shifted some numbers around and altered the symmetry of the sweeper’s face. He looked up and watched the sweeper’s left eye droop.
“Audio file - Notes.” A pixelated speaker materialized above his phone.
“Friday, 2:46 p.m. October 23, 2499. Dropped the sweeper’s left eye 1.5 millimeter’s, disrupting the symmetry,” he said, studying the change, bringing his face closer and closer to the giant old man’s stooped attention.
He stood on his tip toes and ran his fingers across the sweeper’s wide neck, feeling the man’s shave bumps. He touched his own, then smoothed the lingering tingles on his fingerprints with a thumb.
“Yeah. End audio file.” He said. The speaker disappeared and Cuffy took a few steps back and craned his neck.
The twentieth figure stood at the top of his statue, 50 feet in the air, an enormous young boy in a hoody balanced on one leg. The other nineteen figures faced outward toward the viewer, but the boy looked down, back into his pole, into the sphere. He was not smiling.
“Room. Up 49 feet.”
A white beam lifted Cuffy 49 feet in the air.
“Forward 25 feet.”
The white beam moved him forward 25 feet until he was right in front of the boy standing on one foot.
“I’m changing it back. ” He whispered.
Cuffy held his arm next to the boy’s black face, looking at his own skin, back and forth, measuring them together under the same light.
“Room. Display Spectrum.”
An enormous rainbow of color appeared before him out of thin air. “Only Browns.” He said.
The hologram zoomed in without losing size and every conceivable shade of brown spread before him like a fan wheel. He cut his finger down the center of the spectrum, splitting it in half, sending all the lighter browns away. He floated there, 50 feet in the air, studying the subtle gradation.
“Room - Whole sculpture - Ready color shift.”
After a moment of stillness, a glaze of electricity rippled across the statue’s surface, temporarily galvanizing its reflective texture, preparing itself to be completely changed.
He held up the back of his hand against the remaining colors in front of him and pointed at one. The entire statue changed color. His held his hand to the boy’s face again, chose another one. Again, the entire statue changed color.
Cuffy did this for an hour until his skin and the surface of the statue were indistinguishable.
Since the statue’s inception, when it was just a 50 foot block of telegraphic steel, Cuffy had flipped back and forth between the purest jet black and some vague shade of brown, but never his own.
“Room - Down.”
The beam of light set him on the ground. He looked up at his creation and put his hands in his perception again, measuring the progress he’d made. The statue loomed before him like a planet.
Next Chapter: Cuffy Part 2
Erik's Goldsmith's short stories have been featured in Metaphorosis, Hidden Menagerie, and Wavelengths Anthology. He also has a book of short stories called "Tinker's Pain Calculator" published by Scarlet Leaf Press. He teaches English in Texas.