Cephas again observed his body in the reflections of the broken glass in the control room. While lacking either male or female genitalia, the absence of breasts indicated a stronger likelihood of maleness. But there was no way to be sure.
The people he watched and listened to were either male or female, masculine feminine, man woman, boy girl, guy gal, dude chick, gentleman lady, cowboy cowgirl, muchacho perra, gigolo slut. So far, Cephas had catalogued seven hundred sixty-two words used to designate male from female in a variety of contexts. When he watched their bodies move under grainy light of a million identical suns, he noted distinct behaviors and physical features that differentiated either group. To better understand those differences, he often studied the physiology of the dead bodies here in the station, since they facilitated more thorough examination.
The distant sun cast pale gold over the cold control room equipment. Morning, they called it in the videos, the phone recordings, the transcripts, the emails, the network messages. Morning was when the natural light began to replace the artificial. Most of the people awoke from sleep in the morning.
It was because of this that Cephas decided to coordinate his hibernations to daily cycles. His visual receptors activated with automatic rigidity as the sun’s light touched the empty room this morning, coded 6/6/2310.
Many in the recordings talked of being lonely or alone, even when others were very close in proximity. These demonstrated what they called sadness or depression. Cephas’ working hypothesis was that individuals function optimally in groups of tightly associated bands or gangs, and that loneliness results from lack of relation. To support this theory were frequent references and discussions of what they called family or friends.
According to the records, these sources of psychological stability were juxtaposed with settings of intense interpersonal conflict, resulting in violence, both verbal and physical. Cephas noted an increase above average levels beginning with the date codes 12/14/2034 and 3/26/2035 in the areas called Washington D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, respectively. Starting with these events, the terms war, riot,and battle appeared more frequently, and Cephas surmised that most people were accustomed previously to using such words in a foreign context.
Cephas stood. His morning diagnostic noted increased risk of corrosion in his joints, likely due to the chemical canister that burst the day before. Cephas now reviewed the event in his memory. The acid had sprayed over the width of the bulkhead and the hallway. One of the human bodies lying on the deck had received part of the spray, and it easily ate through his stiff, dead skin. Cephas recalled studying the body and its disintegration for a long time.
The people he watched used phrases like that. They disliked specificity. Cephas had stood there for exactly twelve hours, thirteen minutes, twenty-seven seconds. But they would just say a long time.
When that body–Agent Dresden–had finally disappeared after being steadily eaten away by the acid spray, Cephas had decided to gather the rest of the bodies together into storage room D-11. Less Dresden, he had collected eighteen of them. According to the station roster, one of them was missing; but since the roster’s last update was coded forty-six years ago, it was doubtful the last agent was still alive.
No, Cephas had been alone for a long time.
Unlike the command room, the rest of the station was still pressurized. This allowed Cephas to use the machine bay for regular maintenance. The oil bath washed away the corrosive acid in his joints.
The room was completely dark. The generator provided precious little energy, but Cephas had optimized it for the lack of human presence. No broadcasts, no lights, no cameras. Something, however, compelled him to keep the oxygen recyclers running. It allowed his sensors to register the organic odors that wafted still through some parts of the station.
A light on his shoulder flickered on and cast whiteness upon a circle of the wall. Curious, he thought, that he should label himself as alone when he had so many people inside his memory, and increasingly so as he studied more of the tapes and records. They either existed or did not exist on a world that either still existed or no longer existed. Earth, they called it. But they were in the digital records at his disposal, and so they also existed here on Phobos, orbiting Mars along with him.
Cephas decided he should look for the last member of the roster, Agent Horatio Weiss, in order to account for all the station members and store him with the others. The white circle of light levitated perfectly still in the machine bay while Cephas calculated where it was most likely the missing human was located. Sheer metal winced under the light, with slight imperfections scattering rays across its face. Half obscured by the darkness was the sign: FOR CCEP-HAZ BOT MAINTENANCE ONLY.
Cerebral Cell Extra-Planetary Hazard Robot.
Cephas. A male name.
Cephas shifted towards the closed door and the light barely noticed its embellishment: the International Security Agency logo in the top left corner. Its bulk slowly hissed to the side to allow his egress. By his calculations, Cephas determined that agent Weiss was most likely outside the station, on the surface of the moon within a ninety-degree arc extending from the punctured command room window.
As he moved in straight lines through the corridors toward the command room, Cephas watched more videos. In the hour it took him to reach the lift, he observed the life of Geraldo Aranjuez. He worked every day as a construction crane operator, at night as a cook in a restaurant. Cameras on street corners watched him walk to work. Cameras in his crane watched him curse in a different language. Cameras in the restaurant watched him smoke in the restroom. Social media postings revealed his immigrant status, and a webcam watched his arrest in an apartment along with that of four others like him.
During the lift’s slow progress toward the ground deck, he watched the life of Angela Bourdain. She labeled herself an activist in blogs, against what she called government overreach. Cameras watched her hit a policeman. Cameras watched her die from bullet wounds.
The door to another series of corridors got stuck halfway open. While Cephas used his twelve digits to repair the wiring in the door’s computer, he read the internet browsing history of Trey Jardan. The man frequently perused pornographic websites, video libraries, and web comics, none of which Cephas understood. Toward the end of the list were dozens of news sites, articles, blogs, and videos covering topics of national security and government surveillance. Bank logs indicated donations time coded to this same period for the purpose of funding those sites. Cameras watched Tray’s arrest around the same time as Angela’s.
Cephas turned off his light, and monitored the orange sun filtering through thin windows along the corridor. He wondered if it would feel warm to human skin. Perhaps warmth was psychosomatic.
The airlock sealed around him between the hallway and the command room, and a small green light ticked itself on before the new pressure allowed the next door to open.
Cephas read the articles at a rate of three per minute. ISA spying on citizens. Privacy breached. Riots at the capitol. Soldiers attacking crowds. Crowds attacking soldiers. Arrests from internet evidence. Social media monitors. Whistleblower Willard Belkin joined by twelve others fleeing to Iceland. Exposing government overreach. Special forces sent to kill Belkin and his companions.
Cameras watch children leaving comments on videos. Cameras watch dark men taking people out of homes, shopping malls, libraries. Cameras watch courtroom sentences. No room in prisons. Executions. Deportations. Common good. Terrorist plans foiled. Public enemies subdued. Enemy leaders captured.
Agent Weiss lay on white Phobos dust. His face was sunken into the contours of the skull, and tips of entrails or plasmic residue dribbled like dry resin out of the mouth, nose, and rectum from the rapid depressurization.
Cephas looked from the body upwards. The sky was stars and blackness. But a morning sky, and the sun glowed very distant, making a point of a rectangle with him and Mars creeping up from the west and Deimos, the other moon, high overhead.
Humans are incriminators. They are watchers and accusers.
Cephas watched the life of another whistleblower, John Crow, running through streets from more dark men. Always men. Females are inferior. They are of the incriminated class. The superior humans are males, in possession of cameras, weapons, armor, position, control.
Cephas used steel arms and digits and rotors to pick up Weiss’ body from the Phobos earth. Earth – incorrect. Phobos, from ancient Greek, fear. Humans are fearful. Humans solve fear with knowledge. Surveillance. Security.
He moved back toward the station. Something in the sky caught his attention.
Two small lights emerged from the black and white pinprick sky, flying quickly from a distance. The pattern of lights and acceleration vector indicated a piloted vehicle. Someone was coming.
Cephas trudged faster. Security. Phobos. Surveillance. Phobos.
With a crunch of glass, Cephas came into the empty command room with Weiss. He traversed the jutting edges of desks and tables with lightless computers embedded into their gaping faces. Darkness of metal was broken by that sunlight and now the orange haze of Mars rising into the sky.
Through the airlock. Green light. Idly watching cameras watching historic children watching screens watching them back. Phobos. Surveillance. Security.
Sensors encased in Cephas’ chest heard the dull crunch, the metal crinkling sound of something heavy settling into the station.
Intruders. Terrorists. Phobos.
Cephas moved quickly to D-11. The door opened. He came into the blackness of the room and placed Weiss on top of the closest body, stacked three high because of limited space. Agent Trovic under Agent Johannes under Agent Hill now under Agent Weiss. Nineteen bodies altogether. The twentieth disintegrated.
He backed out of the storage room. As his arm reached for the door switch, Cephas heard the hissing of belts, the door far down the hall beginning to open.
He darted backwards, leaving the storage room open in the dark. Cephas went down the corridor, limbs moving with oil and silence. Into the dark side room. The door closed behind him.
Him. Cephas was male. Males are the watchers. Incriminators.
Cephas turned on his shoulder light. Whiteness revealed that he had reached the security room. He moved to the wall in straight lines, having already processed the next several functions. Lift wall panel. Hardwire network cables. Power the security room. Lock the door. Phobos. Move to central console. Activate video cameras. Phobos. Lift desk panel. Access system operations. Phobos. Watch. Listen. Phobos. Human.
There were two of them, wearing gray suits. Panes of clear plastic glinted over their faces in the grayness of the infrared cameras. Spears of white light pierced the darkness from their probing hands. Cephas listened.
The leader, taller by four inches than the other, middle-aged male voice: “Look at the wall markings, Leana,” he said. “This is the listening post, alright.”
Leana, female name, young adult female voice: “Right where it should be,” she said.
“Do we have a floor plan?” said the leader. “We should find the command room and secure the archives.”
“The power seems to be off, Garett,” said the girl. “Maybe we should activate the power grid. Otherwise we may not be able to access the system.”
“Or we could just blow the place,” he said.
Cephas surveyed the meanings of blow that he had heard in the recordings, the transcripts, the records. Colloquialism, to blow up, to destroy by explosion.
Threat. Terrorists. Phobos.
Leana sighed as they both stood in the corridor. “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind a bit if it was just gone.”
“Alright,” Garett said. “Go get the charges.”
Leana ran back up the hallway and through the door. Garett waved his beam of light back and forth across the metal walls, floor, ceiling. It fell then upon the open doorway of storage room D-11. Garett walked slowly from one screen to the next, moving in and out of lazy eyes of cameras. Cephas watched. Cephas listened.
“What on earth…” Garett said. He stood staring at the bodies stacked under his white light. Phobos. Cephas attempted to extrapolate the humans’ possible courses of action based on what he had observed of the historic others. Humans maintained a highly constricted level of variation when under stress. Prediction would be formulaic. He reached down to the console and pulled up more system controls. More eyes and ears opened themselves from sleepiness across the station.
Leana ran through three camera screens on the wall before she got back to Garett. She was carrying a backpack. “What is it?” she said. Then she dropped her light, bringing her hands to her helmet and giving a short scream. “Oh, Garett!”
He put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right, Leana. They’ve probably been dead for a couple hundred years or more.”
A silent moment passed, and Cephas’ extrapolations lay pending on a spinning disc. Leana took a step closer. “But they don’t show that many signs of aging. It looks like most of them died young.”
“Maybe there was an accident. Lots of things can go wrong on a station like this.”
“But who put them here–and so methodically?”
They looked around, and in the span of a brief second, Cephas looked straight into Leana’s eyes through the lazy monocle of the video camera. She flashed her light into several of the others, making their screens go white.
“Those cameras are on,” she said.
“I’m sure they’re just on standby or something. No one could still be alive around here to man them.”
Another moment of silence. Then, Garett took Leana’s hand and beckoned her out of the room. “Yeah, forget about the data. Let’s just set the charges and leave. No one will be the wiser once we’re through.”
Cephas watched their movement and calculated which doors to lock and which to open in order to constrict their route. He moved his digits across the computer console and activated the heaters in the oil vat.
They tried several doors down the corridor. Cephas had locked them all, except for the last one before the hall turned west. The machine bay lured them with one powered light glowing red from within.Phobos.
Garett stepped inside first. Cephas activated the drain switch. The oil vat opened from the bottom, spilling its seething contents at three hundred degrees Celsius across the floor, splashing up and down. Garett shouted and slipped, falling down into the flow. Cameras watched the man writhe in the slick oil, flailing in the heat of it and the fear of it. Leana stumbled back into the hallway and screamed.
Cephas routed power to the red light until it surged. It exploded, bright neon sparks flying into the oil, spreading into the fumes, lighting the man and the bay on fire. The camera became overwhelmed with infrared glare. The other camera in the hall watched Leana shield her eyes with her arms and run away, west. The microphones listened to the man cry huskily. Voice box burning, retreating into shriveled diaphragm, sinking into collapsing lungs. His voice stopped suddenly. Cephas activated the emergency extinguishers. The camera watched the fire go out, saving the other equipment. Garett was a pile of glistening liquid and glowing embers and flaking tissue.
Cephas watched Leana running, listened to her breathing. She was heading toward the command room. No power beyond the west wing. The command room was outside his reach. He watched her run through a door and then outside the last eye’s view.
Cephas would have to end her manually.
He moved through the dark corridors, shadowing her path in straight lines. He watched cameras watching humans killing other humans. No guns. Killing them with their hands. Blunt objects. Sharp objects. Asphyxiation. The airlock opened to him. He watched dark men storm rooms of females. The females were afraid every time.
The green light ticked on for him, and the door rolled away. Leana hunched over by the far left where the servers stood like pillars. She jerked at the sound to face Cephas standing in the frame.
His sensors heard her heavy breathing, her racing heartbeat. Phobos. The word appropriate trickled up from his memory.
She retreated a step from where she was attaching charges to the servers. “A HAZ BOT,” she said. “Stay back! ISA’s disbanded. You’re under public jurisdiction now.” Cephas perceived crying in her voice, like in the phone recordings.
He did not stop watching her, but moved toward the large window, with its orange morning, its shattered glass pieces. Leana stared, then returned her attention to the charges. Cephas picked up a long thin piece of glass. He watched the murders through historic camera lenses. Common good. Terrorist plots foiled. Surveillance. Security.
A scream as he stabbed the side of her chest. Nonfatal. One human arm moved to her wound, the other grabbed him. In the space of three seconds Cephas decided to undo her helmet. Crying. Screaming. Undoing the latch. Phobos. A hiss of air. Phobos. A cough. Another cough. Silence.
Security. No phobos. None except for the Phobos underneath the station. Around the station. Cephas took Leana’s body to D-11. Cephas returned for Garett. He took his body to D-11 also. He sealed the door, then went back to the security room. He sat there, one eye watching videos, listening to voices on phones, reading transcripts, living lost lives. The other eye watched the wall with its screens, its tiny gray rooms, its empty hallways.
by Jedd Cole