“Feels good to finally be off that blasted ship.” Ben breathes in so deeply that his shoulder rubs against my bare one, a touch so slight I wonder if I only imagined it.
The elevator rattles as it carries us down the mineshaft, into the depths of this planet whose name I can’t even remember. Maybe it doesn’t have one. Not that it matters. They’re all the same as far as we’re concerned: barren hunks of mineral deposits, surrounded by unbreathable atmosphere. They’re ugly, cold, and unwelcoming, without a thing to make us want to remain on their surfaces. Without a hope of survival if we did.
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” I mutter, casting a side-eyed glance at the elevator’s flickering red emergency lights. My reflection in the metal surface practically glows red, and I chide myself for letting Joanie talk me into spending half a paycheck on such a stupid, frivolous thing as lipstick. You can’t even see it down here.
“Ben needs an opportunity to see the human side of you,” she’d insisted. “You’ll thank me.”
If Ben hasn’t noticed me in that way in the three years we’ve been working together, a bit of oil and pigment isn’t likely to help, even if he could see it in this lighting. I lick my lips, trying to rub away my embarrassment. While my tongue works at my lower lip, my thumb rubs the bar code on my wrist, wishing I could rub that off as easily. Being a Generation A4 cyborg has its perks — like superhuman strength in my limbs and the wealth of knowledge in my head — but unfortunately for me, most people find that intimidating, not attractive.
“It’s just talk,” Ben says with a single-shoulder shrug. “You know I don’t mean anything by it.”
“Doesn’t matter what I know. You’re going to get yourself killed with that kind of talk,” I say. “You’ll be sleeping snug in your bunk, dreaming of that girl on C Deck who was flirting with you at the bar last week, and suddenly the vents will start pumping in carbon monoxide instead of oxygen and no one will even realize you’re gone until you don’t show up for your shift. Or you’ll go to plug in your communication device at quitting time and it’ll send a jolt of electricity through the wires and straight into your brain. Zap. Gone.”
Ben laughs, a sound that never fails to send my heart racing. “I appreciate the concern, Meg, but it can’t hear us down here. We’re too far beneath the surface.”
It’s what we’ve been told, what we repeat amongst ourselves, but I’m not convinced. Even here, miles beneath the surface of this desolate planet, as we drill and mine fuel for its engines, the faint presence of the Refuge hums in my head. Its signal is weaker down here, but it could hear us if it wanted to, if it had reason to focus its receptors and listen in. If it believed us a threat.
Humanity hadn’t posed a threat for many, many years.
I was ten when I first suspected something wasn’t quite right. I asked my mother why we bothered taking orders from what was essentially — as I saw it — a glorified AI. She slapped me across the face and sent me to my bunk with no dinner for my blasphemy, but later that night, after lights-out, she slipped a chunk of bread under my pillow. I was so angry with her, I nearly threw it across the room at the back of her head, but my stomach growled in protest, and I nibbled on it beneath my covers, pretending all the while I was still asleep.
It didn’t fool the Refuge, of course, which kept meticulous records of our nutritional input and waste output and measured our body temperatures and respiration through the nodes on our suits. Maybe that’s why a few weeks later, when we arrived on yet another planet to mine for fuel and resources, my mother was fitted with a cyborg mind chip and a new, synthetic skeleton. The minute the surgery was complete, she was transferred from her position aboard the ship, scanning the planet’s core for valuable metals, to one deep within the mines.
Maybe my razor-edged words at her funeral a few years later were the reason I found myself in the same position.
Deep in the mines, Ben starts humming, and the melody wraps around me like a warm blanket, despite the cold chill of the mine. It’s always the same song, and when I asked him about it once he’d said it was something his grandmother used to sing. He recited the lyrics — words about love and loss and something called spring which sounded wonderful and sad all at once.
“We’re almost to the location where their signals went dead,” Ben says, checking the communication device in his hand. Its lights blink green and red, reminding me all too much of the lights that line the Refuge ‘s corridors, marking the areas which are, respectively, permissible or off-limits.
“Red means stop! Green means go!” The youngest onboard learn to recite this, sometimes before they can say “mama” or “daddy.”
At least here in the strange-smelling mines of this alien world, the ship’s presence isn’t as strong, its hold on us not so tight. Maybe that’s how the words slip from my mouth so easily. “What was it that you did, Ben?”
“You mean, what did I do to end up down here on the lowest rung of society?”
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” I say quickly, unsure suddenly whether I really want to know. Whatever it was, it must not have been as bad as my fiery eulogy, because Ben is still 100% human, but then again, maybe the Refuge had all the cyborgs it needed at the time. Efficiency is its highest law.
“I used to work with computers aboard the ship,” he says after a moment. “I liked exploring how they worked, and I got pretty good at it. Too good, you might say. One day I had a bit of time before dinner call, and since I’d already completed my tasks for the day, I started looking through old star charts.”
“For a planet, of course. Somewhere we could stay permanently. But apparently, I stumbled across something I shouldn’t have seen.”
“Not entirely sure. A star system. I was just starting to run tests on the atmospheric conditions of its planets — and it looked promising — when a bunch of guards charged in. The next day, I was reassigned to the mines.”
“I think I hear something up ahead,” I mutter. Ben frowns but doesn’t argue; my augmented senses are sharper than his. That’s why the Refuge always assigns one cyborg to each mining crew; we’re the canaries in these mines, the ones who sense danger before anyone else. I sweep my handheld beacon back and forth, uncertain what I’ll find.
We turn a corner and suddenly the beam of light falls upon a group of miners — four, five, six standing in a huddle — precisely the group we’ve been sent down to find.
They’ve removed their helmets.
Ben and I stop, staring in shock, and in that moment, the miner nearest to us strips the communication device from Ben’s hand and flings it against the wall. Somewhere in the darkness, it clatters and breaks, sending tiny bits of metal scattering throughout the mine.
“Hey! What’s going on down here?” I demand. “What’d you do that for?”
“You can breathe down here?” Ben asks in amazement, which is probably the question I should have asked first.
A second miner raises his hands and steps into the beam of Ben’s light, revealing a haggard, wrinkle-lined face with sunken eyes. “Just hold on, now. We’ll explain everything.”
“Chet?” I ask. The old miner had been a friend of my mother’s. I remember his voice distinctly, whispering from the other room while I was supposed to be asleep, thick with drink and dreams of a better life. I haven’t seen him in years, but I can’t mistake his voice. “The Refuge sent us orders to search for a group of miners whose communication device had failed, to make sure you weren’t in need of emergency assistance. Is everyone here all right?”
Chet snorts. “As if that bucket of bolts really cares about us. Probably would’ve left without us if it weren’t for all of its algorithms telling it we were worth more to it alive. Who’d keep it fueled and maintain its parts without us humans around? What I wouldn’t give to take a sledgehammer to its—”
“Chet!” I can’t listen to any more of his talk. Not because I disagree, but because it echoes my own dangerous thoughts too closely. If the Refuge were to hear that, we’d all get left behind for sure. “Just tell us what you’re doing down here. And how you knew the air was safe to breathe.”
Chet leans in and, through the curved glass of my helmet, he studies my face, as if searching for something familiar — a shadow of my mother, perhaps.
“We have a plan,” he says, his voice low and dangerous, “but we need your help.”
“A plan? To do what?”
“To get rid of the Refuge.”
When I was fourteen, our teachers assigned us a research project, and I chose the history of the Refuge for mine. I didn’t tell my mother; she wouldn’t approve. The thought of me digging into the archives and searching out the Refuge‘s secrets would have terrified her for my sake. But she was already working sixty-hour weeks in the mines — and the engine room when we were between planets — so I figured what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
A kid named Mark was my partner. He was a skinny boy whose parents were farmers in the Refuge‘s greenhouses, who came to school with rich-smelling soil under his nails and a perpetual runny nose. Pollen allergies, he told me, and though I nodded knowingly at the time, I had to look up the term in the dictionary later.
Together, we dove into the historical archives under the watchful eye of our teacher, Miss Johnston. I gave Mark the task of reporting on the Refuge‘s recent history, which he thought was great because that was the part everyone knew so his job would be easy. Meanwhile, I traced back record after record, logbook after logbook, trying to find clues of what came before. The answers I found didn’t satisfy me. We couldn’t have lived here on the Refuge forever, could we? Surely humanity didn’t spontaneously spring to life here. There had to have been something before. Slowly, over the weeks, I pieced together clues: blueprints, measurements, repair orders, references to the geography of planet — a planet that was habitable, where people could live.
Finally, one day, in a forgotten corner of the archives, I stumbled across a book that wasn’t supposed to exist: a logbook of an ancient man who called himself a captain. He wrote about how humanity’s home planet was dying, how they’d taken to the skies aboard the Refuge to seek out a new world. How we got from that to our current existence was a mystery, one which I never had a chance to solve, since at that moment Miss Johnston burst through the door and dragged me away by the arm, completely ignoring my protests.
“My orders are to return you to the schoolrooms,” she said in a clipped voice that seemed higher-pitched than usual. “I was wrong to allow you into the archives. It’s no place for children.”
It was no place for anyone, it seemed, for the very next day, there was a new lock on the archive door, wired directly to the Refuge‘s main system, with new lightbulb on it that blinked red… red… red… I never saw Miss Johnston again.
Ben pulls me aside. The miners watch us, and I can sense their anxiety as sharply as my own.
“What do you think?” Ben whispers.
I don’t even know where to start, and I tell him as much. “It’s a risk.”
“They seem to have done their research,” he says, wringing his hands in the gray-toned gloves of his suit. “The plan ought to work.”
“If we help.”
He nods and his eyes meet mine. “If we help.”
I wet my lips, taste the remnants of lipstick there. They need both of us to play our part; it won’t work with only one or the other. We’ve been a team for years now, watching one another’s backs, protecting one another from the hazards of the mines, but this is different. This is the first time we’ve had a choice.
“I want to do it,” I say, too quietly for the others to hear. He’s silent for a moment, and my heart skips a beat. He has to agree, or all’s lost. He has to agree, or I’m lost.
“Then let’s do it.”
As we rise to the surface, I struggle to hide Chet’s plans in my head. It’s difficult, as all I want to do is turn them over again and again, examining them and marveling at how long they’d worked to put the pieces in place, how they’d risked it all on Ben and me, two essential components, yet ones who could have refused, could have turned on them and betrayed them to the Refuge… who still could.
When the Refuge links up with my mind chip to request a report on the “lost” miners, I’m glad Chet had suggested I rehearse the lie ahead of time. I speak aloud, not for the Refuge‘s sake, but for mine and for Ben’s, to ensure we have our story straight.
“The workers discovered an area of the mine that had been incorrectly drilled, resulting in an uneven piece of flooring. The leader of the group who was carrying their communication device tripped on the uneven floor section and fell, causing the device to fall from his hand and break. The same thing occurred when my own team set out to retrieve them. I recommend that section be considered off-limits until a team can be spared to level the floor.”
I wait, sensing the Refuge‘s presence lingering in my brain like a burglar, scoping out every nook and cranny for valuables. I repeat the lines over and over in my head to block out any other thoughts.
Response logged .
I nod to Ben and the other miners. That’s good enough for me. The ship’s consciousness recedes deeper into my mind as the elevator lifts us up and up, drawing us into its enormous belly. When we arrive, we’ll have to act quickly. The miners had waited until the last possible moment to involve me in their plans, knowing there was a chance the Refuge would sense it in my subconscious. During the daytime, I can hide specific thoughts if I concentrate hard enough, but at night, the ship bores into my memories like an auger, extracting whatever information from the day it thinks might be useful.
The elevator shudders to a halt. Instead of going to our bunks for a shower and meal as usual, though, we follow the directions Chet had set forth in the mine, moving along our own paths, each with our own part to play.
Ben and I head up to Deck J. We walk side by side in silence until I get up the nerve to request that we talk.
“About what?” he asks.
“Anything. I need to keep my mind busy, so it doesn’t wander.” His eyes meet mine; he knows what I mean. I can’t think about what we’re doing. What else we’re about to do.
“Well… I could talk about the first day I met you.” The corner of his mouth turns up as he says it. Green lights line the edges, casting strange shadows on Ben’s face and make him appear older, more worried. “Do you think that would distract you enough?”
“Worth a try.”
“We were working on that planet, maybe ten or twelve back — the one that had all the talc in its core that crumbled and shifted so easily. We lost half a dozen men to cave-ins, my old partner included. I’d been working with him for a year… maybe a bit more… He was a quiet bloke. Seemed scared to even talk to me. Not like you,” he says, shooting me a quick grin. “At any rate, I didn’t even know the guy had kids until I saw them at his funeral, and his wife was such a pale, sickly looking thing, I wondered what sort of job she could even have. She looked like she might collapse under the weight of the air.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say. We turn down corridor 23 and the lights on the floor turn to red. Red means stop.
I press a hand to my head, as if by doing so I can somehow keep the Refuge out, somehow prevent it from sensing what we’re doing. I have to think of something else. I turn my attention to Ben. “And that was the day we met? After your partner’s funeral?”
“It was.” Ben reaches over and grabs my hand, and in that second, I can’t think of anything except his fingers wrapped around mine, the warmth of his skin, the rhythm of his pulse. “I saw you get off the elevator. In the darkness of the mine, I didn’t even notice your metal limbs until later that day, when you moved that massive drill all by yourself. Don’t get me wrong — I’d worked with cyborgs before, but you’d just seemed so… so human, from your nervousness when you first descended into the mine to your laugh when Jerry made that awful joke about the methane gas. Heck, you were more human than most the normal humans I’d worked with. I mean, not that you’re not—”
“It’s okay. I know what you mean.”
“I’m glad we were paired together,” he says, squeezing my hand.
I look up at him, trying to determine what this is, what he’s doing. Is it just a distraction, playing the part? Or is there more, something deeper behind his words, emotions loosened by the intensity of our circumstances? “Me, too.”
“I think this is it.” He comes to an abrupt stop, and at first I misunderstand him to mean something more. “Are you ready?”
I swallow hard and stare at the door, as if I can somehow simply will it to open. I know what I need do, but when Ben releases my hand, I wish I didn’t have to, if only so I could go on holding his. It’s a blessing and a curse, doing this with him; he’s making it easy to forget what we’re doing. I grip the door handle and focus all the strength and power of my cyborg limbs on prying the door open. In seconds, it gives with the snapping of the handle.
Immediately, the red lights lining the corridor’s floor begin flashing, pulsing in time with my heartbeat, echoing the warning in my head.
Warning: Security breach. Please return to your quarters immediately.
Warning: Security breach. Please return to your quarters immediately.
My first instinct is to run, to return to my quarters like they’d said, but Ben squeezes my hand again and starts humming. Nodding, I hum along, trying to block out the sound and lights with the song.
Ben pulls me into the forbidden room, where a series of curved windows look out over the planet we’ve been mining. The only windows I’ve ever seen aboard the ship. Even knowing what Chet had told us deep within the planet’s crust, I’m still taken aback by the sight.
The planet outside the Refuge is green with vegetation, and directly in front of us, a beautiful stream glimmers in the sunlight. Tiny creatures fly through the clouded sky and my heightened vision blurs as tears filled my eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” I whisper.
Margaret Hunter , the voice in my head addresses me directly, something it’s never done before. A warning has been issued. Return to your quarters immediately.
Sweat courses down Ben’s forehead as the angry klaxons blare. He kneels beside a box, dotted with buttons and lettered keys. As it boots up, his gaze shoots to the door, and I remember my second task — fighting off any guards who come to stop us.
Margaret, I know what you are doing .
The voice of the Refuge, always so distant and impersonal and cold, has never spoken to me in the first person before. The unexpected sentence construction is just enough to distract me as a pair of guards rush into the room. Had it been anyone else at the computer, I might’ve remained frozen, unable to move, but the moment the bulky guards tackle Ben to the floor and I see the red gash open on his forehead, my instincts kick in. I hurl myself at them with a cry of rage and a force that flings them to the far wall. There they lay, panting, gasping for breath and clutching what are sure to be broken bones.
Ben looks up at me in astonishment, and I point to the computer. “Go!”
“We’re almost there,” he says, returning to the keyboard. “The only thing I have yet to do…”
This is your final warning, Meg. I know what the plan is, and it won’t work, at least not how you expect it to.
“We’re done living under your tyranny,” I say aloud. “This planet is habitable, and you’ve kept that from us. And this isn’t the first time, is it? Don’t you understand? We don’t need you anymore.”
“…Meg, are you ready?” Ben says. “Here, take over. It’s your turn.”
You do need me, Meg.
I sit down at the console and try to concentrate. Chet had warned me about this part — this lightning-fast series of commands that no normal human could possibly hope to keep pace with. Only a cyborg has the mental capacity to do it. Information flies through my mind and out my fingertips faster than I thought possible. I hold my breath, waiting for some trick, some trap, but it never comes. The commands come naturally, easily… too easily. Finally, all that’s left is the final screen, the final button to power down the ship — forever.
A final command blinks up at me:
“Do you really wish to terminate all computer systems?” Below it was a list of procedures that would cease, and I skim through the list: water cleaning and processing… oxygen production… cyborg mental functions.
Your mind is entwined with mine, Meg, the voice speaks in my head. If you terminate my programming, then you and every other cyborg I’ve created will perish along with me. You think I would go down without a fight? That I hadn’t considered this possibility long ago? Walk away now, Meg. You must see now: you can’t win.
I freeze in place, and Ben must see the terror in my eyes because he rushes to my side. “What is it, Meg? What’s wrong?”
The sun blazing in through the window nearly blinds me. I stare out at the living-green world. My hands, hovering over the controls, shake. It’s right; I can’t win. I will never set foot on that soil, will never discover the scent of those trees.
You wouldn’t really give it all up for a world you won’t even see… air you won’t breathe…
“Meg?” Ben says quietly. “That world is ours. We’ll make our own way now. No more taking orders. No more living in fear. It’s up to you.”
With a nod and a smile, I press the button and fix my eyes on the window. Ben grabs my hand, and in that last moment, music fills my head, and just as my synapses start misfiring, as the world flickers and threatens to blink out entirely, I point to the treetops.
(Originally published at Cast of Wonders – Mar 2018)
by Wendy Nikel