Anyway, ONWARD TO RUBBISHH
It was almost as if a gauzy curtain had been pulled across the front of her eyes; the whole world had a dreamy, soft-focus about it. She sat propped up in bed on a heap of pillows, in a quiet corner of the room, watching as the doctors and nurses moved about like wraiths in the distance, behind her curtain of drugged sleep. Fragments of speech filtered through the damping gel that seemed to be packed into her audio receptors – stable… no problems… others like her… Ardent on suicide watch… damaged… - but most of it remained a low, lulling murmur in the background. Pleasant, but soporific.
The room had a bright but chilly austerity about it, with its white walls, its pale green curtains, and glittering chrome fittings. The big window at the end of the bay looked out over her brightly sunlit home district, and she felt a pang of longing, deep inside herself. Oh! To be home now… Six berths accommodated six femmes, herself included; three along each side of the room. Three were asleep, one was watching television, headphones pressed down over her audios, and the last – a delicate little silver-blue creature, directly opposite Celerity – was sitting up in bed, reading a magazine. She met the bigger femme’s gaze and smiled, wiggled her fingers in a little wave.
Celerity went to wave back, and made her first discovery of the day.
Her wrists had been cuffed to the bedrails, and her ankles similarly pinioned at the far end. For a moment, she just stared, baffled, then tugged on her left hand, clanking them, experimentally. The material was dense and very heavy; she could barely lift her hand from the crisp white sheets she lay on. Or was that just all the sedation they’d pumped into her?
She cast a pleading look at the doctor standing to one side, checking her harmonic. “What’s going on?” She felt so dull, so sluggish. Doctor? Where was she? Why was she here? Was she ill?
The doctor glanced up and smiled, reassuringly. “Hello, Celerity,” he replied, ignoring her question. “How are you feeling today?”
Celerity looked back down at her arms, and jingled the chain. “…confused.”
“That’s understandable. You had a very rough day, yesterday!” He patted her hand. “But you seem to be through the worst of it.”
“…will you take these off me?”
“We can’t let you go,” the doctor apologised, softly, cupping her cheek and gently using the pad of his thumb to stroke. “Not until you’ve proven you’re not a threat to yourself any more.”
“But I’m not a threat… to… myself…” she began to protest, but the doctor’s hand had already dropped lower to stroke gently across her scored paintwork – caressing the thick, gouged lines that bit through enamel and substructure, that somehow she knew she’d been responsible for. Over almost every inch of her surface, concentrated mostly over her broad chest. Raw metal glowed fresh in the gashes.
“I’m sorry, Lara. We thought we might lose you, yesterday. Ardent found you – said you were… what was it… ‘trying to cut the damaged parts out.’”
The words felt right, but at the same time felt wrong. Not something she should say. “He might still love me if I wasn’t full of all this dead stuff.”
“He does still love you, Celerity. These… ‘dead things’… it’s all a creation of your subconscious.” He stroked the back of her hand. “I know losing your child was hard. I know you blamed yourself for it. But you’ll get over it, in time, and quicker if you just let us help you.”
“My chest hurts,” she pleaded, weakly, closing her hands into fists and struggling against the cuffs. “Please, let me go.” She wanted to touch the spot of hurt, nurse it better with her fingertips, but couldn’t. “I just-… just want…”
“I know. It’s a sensor ghost, love,” the technician said, briefly touching cheeks. “I’ll go see if the Head will let me give you a painkiller, all right?”
She watched him go, brushing out through the scuffed old doors, and winced and shifted her shoulders, uncomfortably. If only there was someone else here to talk to, not just all these rusted old beds covered in dusty tarpaulins, the ground around them spotted with crystals of long-dried fuel. The long strips of corrugated iron roofing that formed the high ceiling were punctuated with a staccato series of holes, through which muddy daylight shone. The rustling, hissing sound was presumably rain – she could hear the occasional high plink of droplets of water falling from a great height in the distance.
Didn’t like it here. She shrank back into her heap of fusty old pillows, trying to ignore the long, dull ache in her chest. It was a difficult, grumpy sort of pain, though – never eased enough to let her get comfortable, never faded enough that she could ignore it… She tugged on her cuffs again, but the leaden material just clanked, heavily.
For several long minutes she just sat there on her blanket, waiting. Had they forgotten about her? Maybe they’d abandoned her here, after all. A broken-down old warehouse for broken-down old machines that had outlived their purpose. She wished she could have at least been allowed to say goodbye to Dack. Maybe she could ask to use their radio? There was one on a rickety old table in a pool of sunlight only a few strides from here. Might not work, sure, but it was worth a try! All she had to do was release the lock on these rusty old cuffs… so… needed something long, and thin…
She gave her head a good whack against the rail alongside the pallet, and as she’d predicted, two of her antennae dropped onto the blanket. Poor little aerials – their bases were all crumbly and oxidised, ‘rotten’, and she barely felt them come away. She leaned forwards a little, picked up the longer aerial between her denta, and inserted the tip into the keyhole, carefully.
The lock felt… gritty, inside. Rusty. And her rotten antennae just bent with even the gentle pressure she was applying to it. Stupid body, were you made substandard? She frowned, and persevered for a little longer, until the old metal sensor finally corroded right away, leaving only a gluey, tarry black corrosive residue in the lock.
She stared at it for a few more disappointed seconds, as if hoping to scare the manacle into spontaneously clicking open, then sighed, sadly, and returned to her laying position. Rain still hissed against the roof – sounded like the soft static of despair – and a raindrop squeezed through the broken corrugations and splashed down on the centre of her chest-
It was like being suddenly doused in boiling acid, or having a javelin rammed all the way through her, not caring what it punctured on the way. She arched her back against the old mattress, and made incoherent pleading noises; let me go let me go oh please it hurts so much I want to curl up and let it consume me. Broken springs – or were they nails? – poked through the worthless fabric and scratched more gouges through her paintwork, and the chains clanked and tightened as she jerked against them-
“Help me-!” she pleaded, in a brief lull in the hurt. “Oh please oh help me-“
The doctors closed in around her – looking more like recycling technicians than medics, now. Four- six- no, eight big, unfriendly-looking mechs, they encircled the slatted pallet and held her steady against the ruined wood.
“Don’t worry,” the one at her right shoulder reassured, gently. “We’ll get you out of there, darling. You just let us work!”
“But this-… this is… me-“ Celerity managed to get the protest out before pain choked her words off again.
She watched – with a mixed horror and dismay – as the ninth doctor advanced brandishing a hooked, bladelike implement. She squirmed, but the eight weighed her arms down as though each machine was crafted from sentient blocks of lead.
The blade came down in the centre of her chest; the tough metal yielded as easily as though it were the skin of a soft fruit, or a stick of warm butter. The surgeon/recycling tech yanked back and forth on the device and cut a rough line all the way from her abdomen to the top of her chest, shredding metal, tearing up great pointed shards that threatened upwards, like claws-…
She groaned, unheard, feeling fuel from ruptured piping coming up like bile to fill her mouth. She lifted her head and spat it out, another wine-red crystal among the other thousands scattered across the floor.
The shrieking torment of a crying infant reached her audios – she watched, wide-eyed but somehow not surprised, as the ninth doctor finished peeling her chest open like an old food can, and gently removed the squalling infant. A weird gelatinous pale blue fluid dripped away from it in big, unappealing clots; maybe it was some sort of birthing fluid, she wondered, like she’d seen the little baby biologicals floating in?
The baby hesitated in its squalling when it finally met his eyes, and the distressed noises faded into a curious, and almost happy coo. The doctor smiled and swaddled it in a towel, carrying it away, all snuggled up to his chest. Happy gurgling followed him away.
…Fuel continued to pool and drip around Celerity like a lake of crimson gemstones. The doctors weren’t paying her any attention – just looking at the ninth, and the baby, and smiling to each other. Was that it? Was she… doomed to lay here, to bleed out until her pumps ran dry in the middle of an old warehouse, a spent cocoon for a larval machine, a withered old husk discarded by the parasite that had grown silently inside?
“Shouldn’t-… shouldn’t you-…” Her words were difficult to twist into any understandable form, they were just… grinding static, or… cogs, skidding over each other. “Please, I’m-… I can’t-…”
“Can’t what? I shouldn’t?” the right-shoulder ‘doctor’ questioned, leaning down towards her face and shouting, as though she were just another stupid domestic food animal. “Shouldn’t I?”
“Chest-…” she wheezed, fluid bubbling around her vocaliser. “Chest…!” She flapped a hand, unable to gather the strength to lift it all the way to her ruined chassis. “Broke-… broken-…”
“This?” He brushed a hand over the broken claws of metal jutting up from the gaping wound. “Very untidy. What a mess! We can’t sell you looking like that.” Casually, he folded the edges back closed, standing on top of her with both feet flat against her chassis, and dabbed black, tarry glue across the broken edges, crudely sealing her armour closed. “That’ll do for now.”
They helped her sit, shakily; in spite of the knowledge that the broken lines were all still spilling out fuel into her chest cavity, she felt… okay, actually. A bit congested, like her vents were full of glue, but better than she had felt before. The constricting pain was gone. Had been gone since the baby was removed. That was a relief! Maybe that was all it had been? It was telling her it wanted to get out.
The doctor approached, warily, a blanket-wrapped bundle in his hands, and held it out to her. She couldn’t get her arms to function, at first, then jerkily accepted the bundle of cloth and held it closer-
The infant – a tiny, beautiful female, with the biggest blue eyes and an adorable smile – cuddled up against her chest and clicked affectionately.
She felt an immediate flush of happiness; they’d torn her apart and left her still bleeding out – how had she even got this much fuel inside her? – but given her the most beautiful little gift. The infant had a strong harmonic, and her static envelope harmonised beautifully with her own-…
“My baby girl,” she crooned, softly, caressing the tiny head that rested on her welted chassis. She could sense the little harmonic inside the newborn’s chest, and it felt… familiar. Almost like… like Dack’s gentle, protective aura. “You’re so beautiful.”
The infant clicked happily and nuzzled at her. The response was nonverbal, and were more of an impression than anything in actual words, but she understood it perfectly. I love you, Ama.
“I love you too, Spark,” she whispered, softly, ignoring the low pain in her chassis. “You beautiful, beautiful little thing.” She winced and stiffened at another little shiver of pain.
The baby clicked anxiously and rubbed cheeks… then quirked her little head over to one side and chirped, dabbled her little fingers into the fuel still oozing slowly from the rents in Celerity’s chest. What this, Ama?
“That’s-… that’s bad-… stuff, little one,” Celerity shuddered the words out, brokenly. Her chassis was constricted, heavy-… Like a balloon full of water, and still the fuel was flowing out of the hundred thousand broken lines inside her. Pressure rising. Fans flooded.
The baby clicked, and licked her fingers. Energy. Nice! Approval – and an unsettling sense of like / want / need – flowed across their bond.
Celerity shifted, uneasily, and struggled to send no / bad / wrong back across the bond, but hungry came back and more loudly than she herself could broadcast. The infant had already wriggled free of the cradling fingers, and was licking curiously at the spots of fuel that had oozed around the haphazard solder to the surface.
“Please don’t-… don’t do that-…” she pleaded, trying to catch the tiny hands, but the baby was still slippery with birthing fluid, and impossible to catch as she pulled energetically at the welds. “Please, Spark-… don’t-… that hurts-… We’ll find-… find you some-… something else…”
The tiny creature ignored her, pulling excitedly at the remains of the flimsy armour, licking at the fuel that leaked out, like some neophyte mechanical vampire. Hungry, Ama. I have this! Feel better! Fuel wasn’t so much oozing as dribbling, now, running out in a thin, steady stream.
Celerity pushed the infant off herself, feebly. “Stop that,” she told her, sternly, but her voice was shaky. “Stop hurting me.”
The infant gave a squall of anger and bared her little denta. Angry / denied / defiance flashed over the bond, then love / please / hungry / sad. The little spark was so openly distressed, big wet tears spilling down her face, that Celerity instantly felt bad for denying her. But she couldn’t drink this, she had-… had to get… pure, fresh, new fuel…
“Doc-… doctor?” she croaked. “Can you get-… get me something-… for the baby? She’s hungry-
The technicians all clustered behind her, peered over her shoulders, and cooed and admired the infant.
“Fuel,” Celerity reminded. “She’s hungry. Needs-… needs fuel.”
Of course, of course, they all responded. Collectively, they guided Celerity back down onto the pallet, murmuring about how the baby must be given the best chance to survive.
“Not me-…!” she protested, struggling. “New. New!”
But they were sitting on her arms, and she couldn’t free herself, and as the baby continued its unwholesome first meal, a sort of… resignation slowly began to take hold of her. This was how it worked, here. She shouldn’t fight it. It was what she knew would happen, what she had agreed to accept when she first allowed the harmonic to bud off from her own. Mother carried the baby until it was born, and then it consumed her remains as its first meal.
She just… wished she could have spent more time with it. It had already fastened its tiny lips around the largest rent in the metal, and was suckling energetically. It wasn’t just lapping up spilled drops, any more, it was actively stealing her own essential fluids out of her. The tiny body seemed no barrier to it taking every last drop she contained…
Love you Ama, came that noncorporeal voice, accompanied by another pulse of happiness. And – thank the powers – alongside the love / bliss / thanks there came sated / full.
Celerity flopped her hands against the pallet, shakily, and the doctors somehow knew what she want. They helped her sit, and guiding her hands up to cradle the tiny form on her chest, still sucking her dry.
“I love you, my little one,” the brutalised femme creaked, and was greeted by the biggest, most adoring smile she’d ever seen – marred by the ruby-painted lips, still dripping fuel… before her primary pump ran dry and stalled in her chest. A second or two of blissful silence elapsed before a slug of pain shot through her, the hardest and most violent kick she’d experienced thusfar, and-
Everything went black. Black, and silent, and-
She gave a start, engine revving up in alarm and her fans coughing out great clouds of frightened heat. It took a minute or two of in-depth sensor scans to convince herself of what her primary senses were telling her, but finally she worked out that the blackness was just because it was night-time, and dark. Silence because most of the other slaves here were sensibly asleep. She sagged against her bonds, palpably relieved.
She hadn’t been hacked to pieces. Her chest still showed the tiny scratchmarks where they’d roughly sanded her enamel off, and begun to reshape her armour into something “more attractive”, but no deep glittering gouges. Her chest hurt because she was running a high resistance and her harmonic was constricted. The hissing static and running, flooding fuel was just the fizz of rain against the upper security field. And somewhere in the distance, an infant wailed, miserably; a soft male voice was crooning to it, low and comforting.
…she was still in one piece. A little scuffed about, and still fastened securely into the scaffold at the bottom of the pit the laboratory used to store the Merchandise, but still in one piece.
She’d apparently woken her friend, as well. Wen’s kind voice spoke very close to her ear. “Hey, hey, Lara? You all right?”
“Bad-… bad dream.” Celerity staggered over the words. She wasn’t really supposed to have dreams – none of her kind did. ‘Sleeping’ was a time for mental housekeeping, defragmenting, removing irrelevant data and storing the useful bits. So where this horrible nightmare had come from, she wasn’t sure. She’d have to ask Sepp, when she got home, she resolved…
…when she got home. Some hope of that. Stupid Celerity, always over-reacting… She was shaking, she realised; a steady beat of motor twitches all the way from her feet to the top of her head. She lowered her head and felt the cold caress of a teardrop sliding along the side of her nose.
That was enough to break her composure; the stoic face creased into a moue of distress and the tears started in earnest. And she couldn’t even damn well wipe them off, not with her arms still anchored in place…! Frustration made them flow harder.
Wen stroked her antennae, gently. “Hush-a-bye, love,” she soothed, like one might speak to a frightened child, using her long prehensile tail to dab a cloth over her friend’s face. “No-one’s going to hurt you. It was only a bad dream. We all have them, and they can’t hurt us.”
“I know that,” Celerity mewed, shakily, fans stuttering. “I wuh-want to go huh-home.”