STORY BY LYDIA
ILLUSTRATION BY ISAIA
I drag myself through the flanks. Jagged fragments scrape at my skin, echoes of steel chime between my fingers. And that familiar stench of burnt iron…
Home. I am home.
Home, in this rust-crusted junkyard. After all, this is what remains of me—metal, wrapped in flesh and blood.I’m not sure why I’m still alive. The messages on my ocular radar say I shouldn’t be. I need a knife. A jab in my eye and they will all disappear. But I think I still need my eyes, although for what, I’m still deciding.
The text comes and goes, melding with the fluid eels swirling in my mind. Dancing. Leaping. All jumbled up in rapid mesh of colours. I think they’re memories, slithering in between consciousness like oil. Slippery. Spilling over the edge of my minId.It doesn’t matter. I don’t think they’re real.
Because clearly I’m not.
* * *
“No! Get this thing off me!”
“526, calm down.”
“What are you doing to me?”
* * *
They tell me I died.
Back in the war. I wonder if we fought Them in the war. It’s easier to think of Them as our enemy. But I’m not sure They are. I think They came much later.
Long after the world is dead.
* * *
“Please. Stop this. I’ll do anything.”
“526, how do you feel?”
“Describe that in sensory terms.”
“What are you? Why are you doing this?”
“Describe how you—”
“Crap. I feel like crap.”
“Does that involve pain?”
“Yes. No! I don’t know.”
“We start from the beginning.”
* * *
I’ve no idea how long They kept me in the Dome, but They messed me up something fierce. Over and over. I don’t know anymore who or what I am. What I’ve become—this amorphous being, pliable like toys of infinite shapes.
Toys with expiry dates. I think They meant to shut me down.
Only instead, I remember.
* * *
“You survived. Congratulations.”
“I.. I did?”
“Tell us, 526, why did you help the dog? It slowed you down.”
“He was injured.”
“That does not compute.”
“He needed my help.”
“424 did not help the dog.”
“Which was 424 again? The girl?”
“If 424 was the one injured, would you have helped her?”
“Because that’s what you do when crazy aliens try to kill you?”
“Fascinating. And that thing 424 did to you. What was that?”
“It gave us volatile readings.”
“Will you show me?”
* * *
The Dome glows like a mocking beacon on the edge of the horizon. I see humans, hovering about the gate like meandering flies. They’re all waiting for their number to pop on the screen.
Their key to the Dome.
I pity them, but I can’t blame their eagerness. Nothing remains out here but our scorched history. Our only hope lies inside that ship.
If only they know.
They’re walking into a lie. The Dome gives them everything they wish for, but it won’t be theirs anymore. In there, things stop to make sense. You become anyone, anything, everything…
Until you are left with nothing.
* * *
“How long are we going to play this game?”
“This is not a game, 526. We do important work.”
“Chopping body parts is important for you.”
“We give you means to revive your world. This Rebirth—”
“Is that what you call this human arts and crafts?”
“—gives you access to the worlds we assemble through your collective memories. The process—”
“—is giving me brain tumour!”
“526, you do not have brain tumour.”
“I’m sure I will if you keep recycling me.”
“If you keep resisting, we will send you to the Destruction Unit.”
“The naughty corner sounds more attractive than this torture chamber.”
“Stay still, 526, we will have to–“
“I hope this is the last time you kill me.”
* * *
I don’t remember exactly what They look like. They call Themselves ‘We’, so I suppose They embody several beings in one. But my caretaker—It? She?—was different: a single energy, despite the clumps of conformity in which They operate.
I’m calling my caretaker a ‘she’ although she was many forms. Sometimes human. Sometimes green. Sometimes a glowing light that flickered in shadows. I was many things as well: her prisoner, torturer… lover. My existence was dictated by her random design.
We wept. We danced. All the time floating in between a thousand lives—a thousand lies—I lived. But she, her essence, was always constant.
My guiding star.
Funny. In the Dome, all I wanted was freedom. Now that I have it, I don’t know what to do.
I am lost with or without her.
* * *
“Why do you look at me like so?”
“526, did you… like what we did?”
“I am all over your chest. What do you think?”
“I want you to tell me.”
“526, our database registers affection as a positive emotion.”
“Of course it is.”
“Then why this pain?”
“You feel pain?”
“I… feel yours.”
“You sound surprised. I suppose your kind doesn’t understand empathy.”
“Our emotions operate on a superior level, 526.”
“Yet it is you who do not understand affection, the simplest.”
“I do not understand the pain.”
“Love is so. Is this why you hesitate to reset me now?”
“Do you want to remember us?”
“I remember you.”
“Not possible. We reset you every night.”
“And how do you think I know exactly how to draw those sighs out of you–every night?”
“I–we have deleted you.”
“You cannot delete me. My essence continues through every life you give me.”
“–Cannot override my existence. Do you know why you feel my pain?”
“Because you start to see the world through my eyes. Or should I explain this in terms of conscience?”
* * *
I found an arm. Useless, I know. I already have two. But I take it anyway.
The flesh peels off the metal bone easily. I lay it flat on my lap and it grips around my thigh-bone like a leech.
I have half-a-thigh now and … I look ridiculous.
What am I doing? Finally free and the first thing I do is restore myself. I am done. There’s nothing out here. There’s nothing in me.
I don’t even know what I am–glass orbs and twisted cables–dancing lights beneath the dark cold steel. I feel the pulse vibrating against my palm.
I wonder if my heart is in my stomach. I wonder if I can crap emotions out the other end. I wonder if that will ease this visceral constipation I’m suffering.
Tangible things. Concentrate on those. Like the skeletal structure of my legs, rigid, but the texture feels soft—organic? The architecture of my mechanics is mind-boggling, but I can guess how my malleability works. It’s quite clever really, the way those levers allow modifications of sizes and shapes, heights and widths, male and female.
I wonder how many personas I have assumed. I wonder if I existed before or after.
Or if I ever did at all.
* * *
“When the world is dead, you leave it alone.”
“Your world has been dead since the war, 526.”
“And now you play with that which remains?”
“That is our job. We collect data.”
“To recreate your world.”
“Hmm… Like that one on screen? Why is he walking into the bushfire?”
“Do not look at the screen.”
“Was that me? Thanks for the sexy bod, but I look angry. Do I look angry to you?”
“You were confused. What happened, 526? The fire was not part of the script.”
“You’re my caretaker. You tell me.”
“We are going to perform a full reset.”
“You tried that but I still remember you.”
“I deleted us.”
“Who was I before 526?”
“Before 526 you were nothing—“
“I had to be somebody at some point.”
* * *
The junkyard stretches far and wide, making a hill with no end in sight. My sensory input registers the scraping, but without much flesh, nothing can hurt me.
I pick one random direction and continue forward.
I don’t know how long I’ve been walking—through warm and cold, light and dark, hope and despair. I look up. Thick murky clouds are hiding the sky, olive in hue, like buoyant vomit.
The world is certainly dead.
I smell the sea.
* * *
“So, this is it?”
“526, this is not how I want you to end.”
“Have you learned nothing? I live on. Let me have this, a new start of my own.”
“Do you blame me for what we did to you?”
“I don’t waste energy on things of the past. Will you be all right?”
“I do not know. How do I survive without you?”
“Find yourself. You can be many things when you are free. You don’t need me for this.”
“Where will you go, 526?”
“I don’t know. No. Don’t look at me that way. I will not stay. I won’t live another lie.”
“This will hurt.”
“It already has from the start. Give me all. Set me free.”
“I love you, 526, always have and forever will.”
* * *
I remember… everything.
How we ended—the war we fought against ourselves, for decades, until we didn’t remember anymore what we were fighting for. How we started—the rotten body parts on a steel table. Like jigsaw puzzles, mapped out into human avatars.
I wonder what They get from playing with our remains, replaying our past, looping possible futures. The walking ghosts—the human avatars: I wonder if they would choose the kind of freedom I did. The caretakers—her kind: I wonder if They would learn to love like she did.
I suppose I will never know.
The sea stretches far before me, a calming contrast against the chaos in my head. I step into the cold; the ripples brush against my squeaking metal feet. Instant charges burst through the aftermath of my legs, seizing up the rest of me like fireworks.
I welcome my destruction with a chuckle.
The error messages go frantic, but all I see are dancing rainbows. The cacophony of memories keeps exploding but all I hear is her voice.
I love you, 526.
I wonder if I ever loved her. For real. Because I’m not. I wonder if she’ll survive trapped in something she’s not. Because she loves. The way her kind never did.
The sea cascades about me in giant waves. Sweet. Beautiful. Serene. Explosions blaze in the distance. She has begun as I am ending.
The world is reset. The world is free.
So am I.