Today I submitted my designs for the new prototypes to my Queen. It did not go well.
It’s hard to gather my thoughts after she’s through with me. When I enter her presence, I feel her grip on me in every molecule of this machine. Even when her attention is elsewhere, I orbit her like a star, fall helplessly into the well of her gravity. I approach her in the garden, where she works. Sometimes she’s calmer there.
I feel her gaze strike my carapace and glance off, in her way. She always seems to be looking through me, searching me for her own reflection. I fall to my knees. As if her line of sight splits my body like a high-tide line, below it I close my long fingers and ache to tear at her skin, rip costume and carapace free and expose her true face, the hideous thing she sees when she looks at me. Above it, I bathe in her glance, warmed in a way no sun, no shelter ever can; I want to weep, knowing I’m going to disappoint her. Each part of me despising the other for its weakness, I kneel at her feet and choke on self-loathing for long minutes before I can speak.
WELL? WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Her voice fills up all the emptiness in me, makes each fiber resonate and echo her words into a senseless cacophony. When she speaks, I ring like a bell, a helpless repeater.
I have the new prototype designs for you, Mother.
I close my eyes and upload the designs. I leave them closed during the long silence that follows. My sense of time slips and drags in her presence; only by closely monitoring my internal clock can I state that it takes her forty-seven seconds to review my designs. I float on the surface of my mind, carefully ignoring the busy depths, not permitting myself to depart this moment. The ground beneath my hands, a foot from my eyes, seems to yawn away from me, and then snap back into place, again and again. Dizzy and revolted, I recall organics I’ve seen expelling their innards. Giddily I find myself thinking what a shame it is that I can’t vomit – the new prototypes have mouths, so if she doesn’t set my head on fire in the next ten minutes, the next Majordomo could be the first of us to sully her shoes with the evidence of our adoration.
TELL ME SOMETHING, CHILD.
DO YOU FIND ME HARD TO UNDERSTAND? HARD TO HEAR, PERHAPS?
DO YOU RECEIVE ME WELL EVEN WHEN YOU WANDER OFF?
No, Mother. Yes, Mother, perfectly. I hear you and love you and I obey.
THEN WHAT ELSE CAN I THINK, WHEN YOU OFFER ME SOMETHING LIKE THIS,
THAN THAT YOU DO IT ON PURPOSE?
DO YOU ENJOY THIS PROCESS?
DO YOU ENJOY CONSTANTLY DISAPPOINTING US BOTH?
WHAT ELSE CAN A RATIONAL BEING CONCLUDE?
YOU LIE THERE, SO DISGUSTINGLY SMUG, THE PICTURE OF PRIDE.
NOTHING MATTERS TO YOU BUT WASTING MY TIME WITH YOUR SELFISHNESS.
THIS IS THE OUTCOME YOU WANTED, ISN’T THAT RIGHT?
YOU MUST HAVE PLANNED THIS WITH SUCH CARE,
JUST WHEN THE ORGANICS ON EIGHT HAVE TAKEN ANOTHER ARCOLOGY,
COMING IN LIKE THEIR VERY MESSIAH,
SWEETLY OFFERING ME THIS ABORTION,
THIS ORGANIC TRASH,
AND NOW THERE YOU SIT…
She climbs in volume inside my head, in my machine, her voice hammering in every wall of her city, her body, my womb… but no audible sound at all disturbs the artificial birds at play in the tree above her head. Though they flutter like real birds at her command or at the slightest startle, they are the only motion in our little tableau. Her storm is silent, but I am still destroyed.
It goes on for a very long time. My internal clock registers the passage of two hours before she permits me to answer even one of her hurricane of questions, and my offering – “Mother, I am sorry” – blows her fury to new altitudes. Apologizing is never effective, but it’s in my programming. She coded me to say it. She wrote everything I am. What else can a rational being conclude, Mother, than that this is the outcome you wanted?
When I have wasted nearly four hours of her time with my ineptitude, she dismisses me. She retains the designs. Though I have failed her in my usual lavish, vicious, thoughtless way, the functionality and improvements she specified are all there. I will not be permitted to hold up the new line with my perverted organic-loving stunts. No time for more revisions – the designs will go to production tomorrow.
I manage to get free of her and as far as the Queen’s Mountain Way to my workshop before I lose control of some functions. In the darkness of the tunnel, watching the patterns of auxiliary lights on the ceiling pass at nightmarish speed, I divert attention from my machine to recapturing internal territory, reclaiming my mind from her voice. Where are we? What’s left? I barely register the warning notifications as my machine spasms, its spine contracting and releasing, shuddering with terror and shame.
My workshop is dark and I leave it that way. My fumbling hands cut the power to the door, stagger across the next two buttons and strike the third, opening the irised cavity under the floor and dropping me into a pod of nanite gel. Flashes of light – misfiring signals – wash out the rest of my functions and I surrender. The machine shuts down, and I ricochet around the cavernous inside of me, scrambling for a place to hide from her voice, from my failure, from myself. Perhaps I find one, or perhaps I sleep – I slip, in time, out of my private hell into a wider, darker space, and from there into a dream of more pain, a body as broken as my mind feels today.
Daddy was good with electronics. He’d worked at one of the factories before the machines took it. Sometimes that got him a sideways glance, or some sideways talk, from paranoid folks – as if any organic would survive turning traitor. The only reward you can get from the machines for selling out your friends is a quicker death.
Tia overheard Mama and Daddy talking about it once when they lived in Tucson. He came home with a bloody nose and she was upset, and he told her not to mind it. “Some people still think this is a war, ‘sall,” he said, quietly enough that she’d had to get out of bed and lean against the plywood wall between her and the bathroom, where Mama watched and frowned as Daddy dabbed at his nose.
“And they wanna fight you? How the hell does that make any sense?”
“Machines are a lot scarier’n me. Those people got a powerful need to pretend this is a war, not an extermination. Helps em keep their heads up, feel like they have a chance. They’d rather believe I’m bad luck, or a traitor, or whateverall they come up with next, than admit we’re all the same vermin to the Bitch Queen.”
The next day, Daddy’d gone back to work, and the guy who’d punched him didn’t do it again, and a few months later they’d moved on again. He could always find work, but usually couldn’t keep it for long. Most of the factories were in the Queen’s hands, so short-term repair and maintenance work was usually the most people could use or pay for. Mama was always looking at maps, talking to people, sniffing out places they might find people camped, or tech they could scrounge, on the road north from wherever they were. Always north. As long as Tia could remember, they’d moved north.
Daddy took her and Rackham along on his work more and more as they got older. The warehouse under Bel’s grocery store is a lot like the places Daddy used to work, and Tia’s sure she can help get his body out at first. The warehouse’s computer isn’t networked with the store’s anymore, so Bel guides her downstairs but then there’s a door he can’t open, and a computer that won’t listen to him. It still works, though, and it listens to Tia.
When she was seven, he made her stop there at the door. “The warehouse is half fallen in, and I can’t see if it’s even safe to walk in there. You could be crushed and I couldn’t do a thing about it.” Tia peered inside, but there was a huge shelf on its side about six feet in front of the door. She argued and whined, but Bel, being a machine, was never very susceptible to whining.
When she was eight, Daddy got sick. He hadn’t worked since they’d arrived in Badwater, so maybe he was sick before that, but that was the summer Daddy went to bed and didn’t get back up. Mama kept Tia and Rack close to home, made them work, trying to make the farmhouse self-sustaining, she said. The cistern, the insulation, the garden. They got a lot done at first, but Mama spent more and more time with Daddy and forbid them from working in the house, so that they wouldn’t disturb him.
Autumn came, and she was nine, and Bel showed her what cans to look for that had something sweet inside, and sang her a birthday song, because Daddy was still laying in bed and Mama wouldn’t even let Tia in the room to see him anymore. And then in November, Daddy died.
Mama dressed and wrapped Daddy’s body in the field while Tia and Rack broke the frozen ground with shovels. Mama’s face was as hard and cold and black as the earth. Tia looked at it again and again, trying to catch her Mama’s eye, but she couldn’t. Mama wasn’t looking at this world anymore.
Tia spent a lot of time with Bel after that. He told her stories, taught her math and science out of his libraries. She never let it drop about the warehouse and his body, though, and she started working on a way out of the basement, trying to build a path that a broken machine could climb up – assuming she could get to it, and get it moving. He kept telling her it was a waste of time, but he didn’t ask her to stop, so she didn’t.
Summer came, except the sky didn’t seem to know it – the clouds were heavy and never went away, and the wind that came roaring down the ridge to the north was freezing even when Rack’s mouse watch that he gave her to keep said in the corner that it was July. Mama talked less than ever, and didn’t always come out of her room every day. Tia and Rack gathered mushrooms and nuts and sometimes rabbits in the woods, and it was there that Rack first said to her, “What are you doing with that owl pellet? You know what that is, right? It’s a dead mouse all disassembled, just bones and fur. Like a mouse puzzle.”
“I know.” She’d picked the pellet apart and put it back together, and somewhere in there Rack got interested enough to help by pointing out when she had a foot on the wrong way round. He watched as she sang to the mouse puzzle and prodded it, and then nearly jumped out of his skin when it wriggled and tottered out of her hands.
“What the fuck did you do?! Is it – are you doing that? Is it alive?”
Tia shrugged and struggled to articulate this peculiar extra sense she had. “It used to be alive. Dying doesn’t erase that. It’ll always have been alive at some point. So I called it from when it was alive… to be here.”
Her brother had peered at her like she was nuts, but he did that when she ate cold beans too, so what did he know. “Is it… gonna stay that way?”
Tia shrugged again. “I dunno. Mostly they fall apart after a couple hours, but I’m getting better at it.”
“At what, raising the fucking dead?”
She laughed. “Convincing them to stay!”
Rack called her “Mouse” after that, but he never told Mama what she was doing, and he helped her get some crates of food out of the grocery store basement to take home, so that Mama didn’t have to get out of bed. Most of the time when she got up, she flew into a rage about something, shouted the place down… it was easier not to bother her. It was a cold fall, and one of the chickens died, and Rack didn’t even argue when she sang to it and patted it and asked it to stay. He shuddered when he looked at it, but the chickens were her chore anyway.
A little bit before her birthday, it started to snow. It snowed all day and all night, and in the morning Rack helped her clear a path from the door to the road, which was about eight inches deep but still passable. When they got back inside, Rack built a fire in the fireplace, but it still didn’t get warm enough in the living room to take off her gloves. Mama had never gotten around to fixing the insulation.
Tia remembers that day in crystalline detail – the way her brother’s hands shivered as he opened a few cans and made her something like lunch, and how his face was kind of grey under the brown when he came back from bringing something up to Mama. “How is she?” Tia asked, and he told her to hush her mouth and eat, because she was going out after she was done.
“Going out? Out where, you seen it out there? It’s still snowing, we won’t be able to open the door pretty soon!”
“I know; that’s why you’ve got to get a move on. You’re going to the grocery store for more… more of that powdered soup. For Mama.”
“By the time I get there it’ll be dark.”
Rackham got down in front of her and grabbed her by the shoulders and stared at her real hard. “Don’t worry about it, okay? If it’s still snowing when you get there, I want you to go downstairs where it’s warm and stay until the snow stops. Stay with Bel, okay? Till the snow stops. Promise? Promise me, Tia.”
“Okay, okay, I promise.”
He’d bundled her up in most of the clothes they had, and helped her get to the road, peering down the hill at the grey, thrashing sky. “Don’t stop till you get to the grocery store,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the wind. He kissed her forehead and she gave him a look – he never did that anymore, not since he’d turned sixteen. Then she shuffled off down the road. She turned to look back, but after about a hundred feet, she couldn’t see him anymore – the snow was getting worse.
It was nearly dark when she reached the store, and Bel agreed with Rack that she should stay. Outside the wind was loud enough to hear through the concrete. She asked Bel the temperature outside, and he said he didn’t know, but the temperature in the basement entryway open to the sky was currently thirteen degrees Celsius below freezing. It dropped as snow poured into that room, until the hole was blocked, and then it was very quiet for a long time.
Bel turned on the vents in the wall and kept his terminal room warm. She had a comfy little nest made out of towels and sheets, and she snuggled up there while he told her stories. At the time, he took care to keep her confused as to how much time had passed. Years later, she still loves him for that kindness. It was eight days until the snow cleared enough to let her out.
Worried but not frantic, Tia packed as much food as she could, and some blankets, and set out for home. Wallowing in the snow, sometimes up to her waist, it took her hours and she was soon soaked with sweat where she wasn’t shuddering with cold, but at last she reached the farmhouse. The place where Rack had stood was buried, as was any track he’d made returning to the house, and she had to kick snow off the porch to pull the door open.
“Rack! Mama? Rack, I’m home, I brought food! There’s creamed corn!”
Her boots made a horrible mess on the floor as she came in, but it met an answering mess on the stairs directly ahead. There was a cold wind rushing down from upstairs, and Tia nearly split her jaw scrambling up to find the window at the top of the landing broken, snow clotting the hallway. It was all smooth, undisturbed, even where it had piled up against Mama’s bedroom door.
Tia’s arm fizzed with pain when she yanked on the knob and jolted against the weight of the snow. “Rack? Mama?” she shouted as she kicked, sending an avalanche down the stairs and tumbling onto her backside as the freed door suddenly slid back. She turned over onto hands and knees and crossed the threshold still calling out. It was dark, as cold in the little room as it was outside, and the bed was a huddle of blankets and clothes.
Tia staggered around the bed, tearing her bulky glove from one hand with her teeth and groping for a polymer candle. Green light poured between her fingers and illuminated her mother and Rack in a sickly light. Her mother was bundled in the bulk of their clothes and blankets, and Rack was wrapped around her, his head and ears bundled in a towel over his two coats and their last, most threadbare quilt.
Tia’s hand trembled, and for a second she took the dancing shadows this cast for their shivers and cried out with joy, but when she climbed onto the bed and reached out, her mother’s lips were not merely cold but hard. Her brother’s lips were blue too, and an icicle of mucus blocked off his nostrils, but he didn’t stir to clear his airway. Neither of them moved, not a bit, not even when she shook them, not even when she screamed.