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When time ceases to be time, it is easy to lose yourself. We measure our lives in numbers, hours, days, months, years; but we know that there is an end, and it is always moving forward. What would you do if you were given infinity? Would you still be you after the end that did not come?
I lost myself some time ago. Unborn to the world, stashed away, placed on pause. All time converged inside the abyss, past, present, and future.
Each deliberate exhalation raised and lowered my chest as the cool darkness carried me to unknown shores.
Movement, movement; I hadn’t felt movement since untold ages ago. Through the undertide, brisk footsteps echoed across a tiled floor. My heart began to beat as my mind opened up, sparking life anew. The deep pulse channeled through my body once again, and as I clenched my fingers into a fist, I realize I was still here. As I took a deep breath, my soft lips parted as if I was breaking the surface of water. Remorse invaded my mind along with the murk. The taste of mineral steel swelled my mouth as my lungs burned, plump with an unknown fluid.
My ten thousand years of closed eyes opened as the illusion of long-suspended sleep was broken. My first sight was of a sterile white ceiling. Tiles raced like a river, while beams of light shot through the glass like spears. With the remaining brain fog clearing, I could hear footsteps more clearly.
My black silky hair twirled as if it were underwater foliage. Every subtle movement caused the drifts in which I rested to whirl and wander. In my container, I levitated off the smooth, spongy floor. Beyond the glass, I could make out something that looked like a human, but it moved wrong as if it were a reproduction. The strange thing hunched over the foot of my container, cables, and cords lining its scratched and worn metallic armor. A mechanical groan alerted me. With a simple jostle of my hip, I rolled over, my attention turning to another pair of strangers.
A whimper accompanied a carbon-dioxide wisp as I exhaled. I released a bounding shriek as my eyes widened and my jaw dropped open. The lumbering form of an imitation human face rose to look down upon me; imitation to the extent it was something akin to a cheap plastic mask. A sense of claustrophobia quickly overpowered me as I darted about the strange cell. I had inadvertently attracted the alien’s attention, and to my horror, it turned towards me. I was at the mercy of these inhuman pretenders with no way to escape.
I could make out, in the dark, that I was inside something like a stretcher. A glass tube encased me and some kind of liquid that allowed me to breathe surrounded me. “She shouldn’t be awake.” The words startled me. Although the sound was distorted by the smothering liquid, I could still tell it was digital, broken, and artificial like the rest of it.
“Stay quiet.” A second alien engine demanded, its voice deeper and more machine-like than the first. The group froze. Hoping I hadn’t enraged my captors, I halted my breathing. They remained motionless. It strangled my every vein as I waited for a reply. Only the faint whine of their old motors breaks the agonizing silence. Was it me? No. They were watching the hall. “They’ve spotted us.” announced a male voice.
Shivers ran down my spine as I heard an ear-piercing scream from the dark. It felt like an unfamiliar hand crawling across my skin, grooming me in places it shouldn’t. After bracing my knees against my shoulders, I curled up into a ball and covered my ears to stop the stabbing pitch. Screams filled the air. There had to have been a hundred of them, and the roar of gunfire was all too loud. Each percussion thundered through me. I closed my eyes to escape the horrors which I knew would await my lids. The only thing separating me from a nightmare was an inch of glass. A light sob crawled from my throat at the thought.
The sound of scraping became more intense. Beyond that, I could hear the buzz of a chainsaw carving, slathering a wet, pulpy mess as it sawed through whatever it fell upon. Red splatters covered the glass in a violent coat that obscured my vision. With a thud, it swung aside the carrier, throwing me against the container’s wall. Observing the three mechanical soldiers with chainsaws and rifles, I became even more panicked. Beyond them lies a vision of a swarm; malformed tumorous bodies rode with polyps, clawing and screaming in unbridled fury. Kicking at the glass, my feet struck it, pushing me away from the sight. This was a futile effort. I couldn’t escape. My silent dream had released me to this nightmare, and I somehow longed to return to that nothingness.
Once again, the capsule shifted, jolting me from my cowering. Once again, I saw the plastic faces of a pair of mechanical soldiers. With rifles in hand, their arms were slung over the cart as they pushed it. They fired shots into the swarm from all sides. The three in front cut into the creatures as they swung their weapons. There was a glorious howl from their, well, whatever they had. Blood dripped from every wall as insides and limbs fell to the ground. Moving closer to the battle tide, my heart sank. As I watched, I realized the machines were pushing the prison towards that awful visage. “No, no, I don’t want to go there! Please, no!” As I screamed against the fluid, I pleaded for mercy. Nobody answered or even considered my plea. One more time, I stared into those cold unfeeling masks hidden behind those false smiles.
Looking into the fray of battle, I only saw two soldiers. “309!” shouted an android. As I looked at them, I could see how much they cared for one another. Both soldiers increased their pace, cutting and chopping to get to their fellow soldier. As I scanned the fleshy horrors, I spotted the missing android’s arm and head, but that couldn’t be right. There was too much distance between the head and the arm. I pondered what I was seeing. “Grab the tracer!” commanded the android in front of me.
When the puzzle was complete in my mind, I screamed, “They tore it apart!” The two android soldiers in front stopped their advance at the end of the hall. Defending the unending throng of monsters with four arms, slashing and cutting, shattering the monsters with their glorious power, my champions? “Are these things trying to save me?” I asked myself. My emotions were in a maelstrom of total confusion.
I became unable to see the group because of the flood of blood that rained down. The covering of gore comforted me in some ways but brought out intense anxiety about what lay ahead. Meanwhile, another android picked through the ripped torso of their fallen comrade. From its body, the android extracted a small card. Their flesh-bound tethers ripped free as they deposited the card into their own frames.
“I got it!” the machine hollered in victory.
“There is an elevator shaft ahead.” the android, who hung over my capsule, announced. Although its body did not match its voice, it sounded feminine. Apart from a natural patina of rust and wear that allowed them to be distinguished from each other, they all looked the same to me. “We can reach the roof from here. Attach the carrier now.”
There were still a few gaps in the scarlet black. Nevertheless, I could see that the hall had become nothing more than a twitching pile of meat with blood dripping from every surface. Like worms, colored cords swam in the piles of ruination, tying stray pieces back together. As we drew closer to the elevator, the pile seemed to get deeper. The limbs that remained firmly gripped to the androids. With barely any effort, they jerked themselves free, giving the parts no purchase. The soldiers held the line against the onslaught as the others pushed my capsule into the elevator.
A bright blue light lifted the capsule into the air, elevating the android through the tunnel. We rose higher and higher in the tunnel as a blue glow radiated from the entire device. The platform stopped opening to a bleak sky, the color of rusted iron, which cast a dull glow over the rooftops. The city’s buildings were rotting with lines of overgrowth resembling muscle tissue. An odd-looking vehicle awaited the group; judging by the large wings, I presumed it to be a plane, but I wasn’t certain. From the elevator shaft, the other two androids appeared. They were sopping wet with blood. They left behind a messy trail of gore as they walked, bits of flesh rolling off their bodies.
From the ship’s open hanger, a man yelled, “You found one.” My heart pounded. When I heard the man behind the glass, I rushed to the edge to see through the red ooze. In the plane’s dock, the androids lifted the pod as they dragged it to the threshold. Pressing my hands against the window did not produce any results. The darkness made it impossible to see anything. Hearing a human voice was comforting though. “What condition does it seem to be in?” the man inquired.
“It’s awake.” The android grunted.
Pressed into the side of the glass was the torso of a white plastic suit. “We cannot have that.” He told the machine. “My, isn’t she magnificent?” My eyes scanned over my shoulder to see his face hidden behind the visor.
“Help me, let me out!” I shouted, throwing my body against the window. Compared to the androids, the man’s face appeared even more unconcerned. In response to my struggles, he only glared at me with a dehumanizing gaze. “Why are you doing this to me? What am I doing here? Who am I?” My eyes twitched as round crystals floated in from the capsule’s ducts.
“Phhhshhhhhhhhh…” A small vent above my head emitted a malaise of white cloud. The stench was rancid, and I gasped. The tightening in my body made me gasp for another scream, but my chest could not manage it. As everything grew heavier, I let a low moan escape. I struggled in the milky fluid but failed. My fingers pressed against the glass as my arms became heavier. I felt as if I was being crushed, and I fell limp. While the theater of this nightmare came to a sudden halt, my iron lids closed like curtains; the deep slumber of stasis returned.
“So, she is asleep. Just like that?” The android I had hired commented. He had a thin, rectangular head, and his upper reticle was blue; its general shape reminded me of the shape of a pistol. It looks like what a human body would look like if scraps were gathered and put together. Various cables and ribbons hung from the gaps in its plating and from the back of its head. Having no use for its artificial visage, the mask dangled from the side of its head. It was entirely constructed of black gunmetal. There are several decades etched into its body, scraped and scratched with incomplete model numbers.
In all my years, I never dreamed I would get this chance. My heart filled with a child-like giddiness as I looked at the bloodied container. I nodded in disbelief at the android’s question, unable to look away. “Indeed, she is,” I murmured a bit. As I stood up, I glanced around the cargo carrier’s rusted interior. Even though it looked shabby, they actually succeeded in their mission. Then I noticed how spacious the area suddenly became. Despite paying for a squad of five, before me, there were only four. “I see that only four of you returned. My apologies for not acknowledging your loss earlier.”
The computer then said something that seemed most bizarre to me. “309 will live again, like your girl.” The android lifted a small rectangular chip from his bloodied breastplate. “We need to refurbish his body. That’s your responsibility.”
“Cover your mistake with a body, huh? Why should I pay for it? I hired you to retrieve her, not to rehabilitate your aging bodies. When I hired you, you knew the risks. That is your own fault because you didn’t consider the complications.” I replied.
As the reticle twisted and turned, narrowing in on me, I was not pleased to see my own worried reflection. The hanger motor grumbled as the doors raised, revealing his intentions. Suddenly, the open doors seized my breath as I heard, “Our contract ends, there is no negotiation.” The mere thought of my suit being berated like that terrified me. As I stood before the unknowable plummet, my feet became unsteady.
“Wait! Stop!” I screamed. “We can make it work.” The ship’s doors closed as my will bent. Was there anything else I could do? My position did not allow me to argue against it. “I should have known better. Unfortunately, our colony does not have military-grade android parts. Would a trade be possible? For something of equal value?”
“That’s fine with me. We’ll need more seeds.”
As I shook my head in disbelief, I realized how surreal the situation is. Visiting the outside world has been a long time coming for me. Before, androids served humans. Now they were driving a tense bargain. I don’t know where they learned this type of behavior. Through observation over time, I suppose they have become like such things. Still, what could they possibly want from seeds? There is no place for them to grow, and besides, what would artificial beings like them want from anything biological? I had to know. “So what do you hope to gain from seeds?”
“Unmodified seeds are among the most valuable things in the world. Unlike most things, they can’t be manufactured. Our goal is to restore the world to the way it was before this cursed decay spread, unlike our greedy peers in the empire.” the android said.
It was impossible, it cannot be done. Certainly not by their hands. That thought was kept to myself, not wanting the machine to frighten me further. “Well then, good luck with that,” I grunted, walking back over to the capsule, gazing inside at the fair-skinned girl resting soundly. Our salvation.
The vessel carried us over the ruins of an old city, through the slumbering lands that had rotted. We flew over an even more lonely sky, over a vast sea, over mountain passes, and over fleshy fields of sinew; until we reached a desert wasteland of hollowed buildings that stretched for miles.
As the ship fell to the ground, a secret hangar door emerged as the craft sank. On the platform, two people awaited our arrival. In charge of this girl was a young woman with black hair named Vanity and a much older man, a doctor named Hellibor Winters. As the ship landed, the doors opened to reveal the ark in which she lived. Vanity cried out, “They did it!” Everyone could hear it, even from the confines of the ship.
“Brilliant. I told you we could trust them.” Hellibor grumbled in his usual grouchy voice. He stood stoic as ever, in contrast to Vanity’s excitement as I made my way out of the craft. Hellibor said to me before I could even speak, “Bring me the containment chamber.” in that familiar, commanding tone.
I thought to myself, “It’s a relief to be home.”
“There was a complication,” I murmured. “We need to pay the androids a bit more before they can release the girl.” I regretfully informed them.
The low growl Hellibor let out under his breath was still fresh in my memory. I could tell by the growl that there would be repercussions for this. Turning to Vanity, he gestured. “Vanity, get another seed and give it to Brainer to feed the swine.”
Vanity answered in the usual formal way, “Yes, sir, Hellibor.” It was impossible not to notice her sway when she entered the building. It was one of the few pleasures left in the world.
“So, you recovered a specimen,” said Hellibor. Together, Hellibor and I walked side by side to watch the machines perform their usual pre-take-off tasks.
“As you had hoped, it was a girl. However, she woke up during the extraction. The ark’s seal was broken.” I couldn’t even look him in the eye. My palms soon became wet inside my suit.
He grunted, not as sour as I had expected. “It shouldn’t matter.” He said. “If she is infected, then the contaminants shouldn’t affect her.”
“They almost threw me overboard. I think they might have thrown her as well. That’s one way to negotiate extra payment.” Hellibor shook his head as he placed his hand on my back. To be honest, it was strange because it was the first time in quite a while that I had felt a touch. There was nothing natural about it. Hellibor, I guess, felt the same way; the second he realized what he had done, he whipped his hand away.
Vanity came back with a pair of test tubes. “Two seeds,” she chirped, holding out the meager specimens toward me. As though it mattered, she replied, “They are still cold.”
In reaching for the two seeds, I felt a heaviness in my gut. “They’ll take this as an insult.” My mind shrieked. Two seeds for what they just did. That’s hardly payment. Although their contract did not specify any amount, it was still clearly plural. When I took the two suspended seeds from her, I said, “This is all you will give them.”
Hellibor gave a confident nod. To present our payment, we walk together to the drop ship’s hangar doors. The leader of the group stood at the lip of the hangar, towering above us like a giant. Seeing the pair of reflective tubes I held in my hand, he jumped onto the platform. “May I inspect them?”
Hellibor spoke just as I reached for the skeletal metal hand. “I’d like to see the girl myself before we pay. I want to make sure she doesn’t have any blemishes. For that, I will need to run scans on her.”
“That won’t happen without my payment. Payment will be made upon delivery. A specimen has been delivered. We have fulfilled our end of the bargain. Now you must abide by yours.” the sternal android replied.
“Brainer, give him the seeds.” This surprised me. It seems Hellibor also knew when to quit.
I extended my open palm. The android took a sample out of my hand and examined it carefully. He then asked, “Where is the rest of our payment?”
“That is it. One seed, one person. I granted you two seeds graciously, seeing as you wanted double payment.” Hellibor stated with authority. He knew that deep down the machine would not accede to such a ridiculous request.
“I’m not amused by your humor.” the android groaned.
“A seed is the most valuable thing on earth.” Even though I was wasting my time on this, I knew from the look in the machine’s eye that I hadn’t impressed that machine.
It laughed inhumanly, with grating synthesized sounds. As it pointed at me, it said, “Now you, you know humor. But I have a feeling this girl is more valuable to you than those seeds. If you wish to continue with your game of negotiations, I will destroy her and call it a loss.” Our smug faces melted. When I looked over at Hellibor, I wanted to know whether he wanted to continue. He was stiff and I couldn’t read any of his facial expressions, but the fear of failure that stabbed through his body was clear from the machine’s comments.
It was true: we needed her far more than the androids needed their seeds. It had taken us years to find someone held in stasis, and now we had it. Despite being so close to our goal, Hellibor’s foolish pride was the only thing holding us back; and he sacrificed that pride for our sake. “How many do you want?”
“As many seeds as you have inside that cozy shelter of yours.”
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