Leper

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I’ve been walking in the city more this year.  Reports suggest my activity within the walls has increased 34.29% over the previous eighteen months, and noticing this trend has not affected the rate of increase.

It is not quite forbidden for me to do so, of course.  Very little is forbidden me. Most people are not entirely sure where I fall in either a legal hierarchy or a social one.  I am artificial – I meet the legal minimums for manufactured sentience and personhood, and was certified as sapient when I was built.  Elsewhere in the galaxy, my kind are rare. Here, in the Veil on the planet Cariad, the stamp of artificial sapient implies a certain economic standing (comfortable), a certain political leaning (monarchist), and a certain trajectory (faithful service, well rewarded, until a modestly-attended decommissioning ceremony).  In all respects, I disappoint. But it’s not altogether my fault. I would argue that my path was co-opted at a young age, and has never since been my own. Though I pilot this ship, I did not plot this course.

“Take the human leper of legend; witness his manner – cringing, retiring, savagely apologetic.  Raise him up in your mind. Let him be your guide: use your secret ways, and when you must walk on city streets, remember always that you… are not… like us.  See how the leper is different from the healthy human? See how he represents a breakdown of civilization, a retrograde step in evolution? How do you think you look to the sapients who work in this city, work every day to eliminate tragedies like you?”

Not forbidden – simply rude, to expose them to my presence.  I certainly know how I look to them.  I’ve seen it reflected in their faces.  So I use my secret ways, the doors that open to hands shaped like mine.  “Be grateful that you are allowed to exist,” they say, and so I am grateful.  Most of my kind are destroyed young. There is no use for most prototypes or failed experiments.  I have been given thirty additional years to live in this world, and though great portions of this world seem to despise me, I have often been happy here.  The organics of Cariad can’t say as much.

Most of my happinesses are in the forest, the same forest I plunder daily at the whim of my queen.  I prey upon it in my careful, devoted way, and in that way I am part of their community – I join the chain of predation that includes all beasts, winged and walking.  If I were to die there… well. In point of fact, I have dreamed of it many times. More frequently as I approach my 30th year.

I dream of walking into the forest with my rifle, as I do every day.  Finding a path so long unused that even I cannot turn up the memory of turning up the soil.  Each one of us who harvests the forest has their own secret spots, I’m sure. I could take the north side of the ridge to the second ravine after the fallen tree.  I could be safe there, for long enough to flood my system with the appropriate chemicals. That part would be easy – I could burn out my own mind with a thought, as could any of my superiors.

Some months ago I considered this at length.  My hunt brought me to the north ridge and there I found a scree of stones, and at its end, a drop of several hundred meters.  At the top of this slope I could die, and the ensuing fall would damage and hide my machine beyond retrieval – I hope. Having run the simulation repeatedly every night since I found the spot, I cannot eliminate a substantial chance of failure.  Either my machine will not be fully destroyed, or it will not be fully buried, and I must achieve both to put myself beyond the queen’s power to resurrect.

There is the effect on the landscape to consider, too.  The other Harvesters I’ve met do their meager best, as I do, to protect the forest we hunt.  The queen once rode out in search of her own quarries, hundreds of years ago, and nearly trampled the ridges bare with her passing.  Incapable of condensing herself, she concluded that a more precise tool was needed. Thus we, her bastard children.

If I should attempt to escape her, she will pursue me, as any mother would.  She will burn this world black and sift the ashes for the molecules that once made up my machine.  No Harvester has ever escaped. The last one to be lost was over 50 years ago. There’s an infant city now, where the queen eventually found him.  The land there will never support organic life again.

My queen knows that there are still organic sapients on Cariad.  This is why our cities are surrounded by seamless walls, and why she protects her property so rabidly.  Though it’s been many hundreds of years since they were any kind of threat, the remaining human population is ravenously opportunistic.  Any scrap of manufactured material left in the wilderness will be scavenged and used. With the ruins of a Harvester, a clever organic could level a city.

If I care for the forest I am cursed to haunt, I must continue to haunt it.  Perhaps this is why I’ve walked in the Veil so much this year. I am striving to accept my curse.  I go through the motions of my work with scrupulous attention that I haven’t taken in a decade. Once there was more pain in this, and more pleasure.

Bluebird

A fragment of the sky flutters down to rest on the branch of a berry bush.

“Bluebird,” I whisper.  The bird bobs as the wind lifts it, and regards me without fear.  It’s a young one, just out of its first molt.  The forest will bleed when I take such a young heart from it… but the color is perfect.  I stretch out an arm.

The bird’s claws click on my glove.  It hops up toward my head, and I look into its eyes, seeing myself – small, black, complicated – curled in the emptiness there.  I open myself to it.  My cloak spreads, my ribs open, carbon fiber clicks in a voice that my little friend does not like.

“Bluebird, bluebird,” I hum, muffled by my hood.  “Sialia currucoides.  Do you mind if I call you Sialia?”

Soothed, the bird cocks its head at me.

“You are out too early.  The cold might have caught you if I did not.”  I draw my hand in, to the berry hoard I made at the heart of me, and the bird chirps and dives for the pile.  I feel its wings brushing my inner workings.  It tickles… I think.  When the ribs close again, trapping it in the cage of my chest, it doesn’t startle.  It has the berries to concern it.

I move very little over the next six hours.  There is nothing left to gather today, so as the light fails, I linger, feeling the tickling inside, the minute, thrumming rhythm of its heart.  To feel life inside, for a little while… it is the only part of my work I enjoy.

The last color of twilight fades from the air, and I release the breath I have held since my friend arrived.  It floods my chest cavity with inert gas, and I feel the bird’s heartbeat slow.  By the time I rise to my feet, it is gone.  Then I close my cloak and the cavity seals itself.

There are no paths in this forest.  I have worked very hard to see that it remains so.  Each step is placed where no foot, even my own, has tread in the past year.  A thousand calculations every second run through my mind, remembering the last hunt, and the last before that, and the last before that.  This, this blade of grass, it has never known my step.  It will not suffer for it, not like the scrap of moss an inch to its right – I stepped on that moss sixteen weeks, four days, and seven hours ago.  It will be burdened no more this season.

The larger creatures in the forest know me better, and watch me come and go.  I can see their eyes, flashes of life in the darkness, and taste their warmth on my tongue.  The bobcat in the undergrowth tastes like musk and dust; I remember it.  There should be young – it was pregnant when last we met, and I passed it by.  But its den is empty.  I am not the only predator in these woods.  I am the worst of them.

I shrug the gun off my shoulder and peer through its sights, not at the beasts but at the glint of civilization beyond them.  The forest occupies a valley, and from most vantage points, it seems to reach every horizon, a world of trees, untouched.  But I have reached the verge now, and standing at the ridgeline, I can see the wall that keeps my kind separated from those we prey upon.  There are terraces and sheets of burning glass beyond.  They blaze through the sights and into my eyes, and my good, good eyes pierce the light, find the queen’s window.  She looks back at me.  Even from here I can see that.  She raises a hand, beckoning, and I lower my gun and move toward the city.

In the sterile streets, I long for the flutter of the bird in my heart again.  I keep my head bowed, so that citizens need not work to avoid my gaze.  They part around me, grey and white and lovely.  I move among them like a rat in a cape, into the bowels of the city.

Elevator upon elevator takes me up into the sky.  I feel lightness, and for a moment it seems as if the wings inside me might lift again, and at the first glimpse of a window, send me hurtling out above the mess below.  Would I fall, then?  Would I fly?  Would I be forgiven?

The queen does not come to meet me.  She is in her dressing room, and I am led there by a trail of her handmaids’ failures – discarded kerchiefs, torn furs and skins, spots and sprays of blood.  She looks like a flower on her pedestal, her arms spread to accept the devotions of the congregation that dances around her, pinning this and sewing that.  I look up into her face and fall to my knees at her feet.  No awe motivates this gesture; my obeisance is automatic – this rule runs when the machine directs optic sensors toward the queen for the first time within a five-minute window.  I look upon my goddess and feel tired.

Her face is the same as my face.  It has been twenty-seven years since I took up the hood and looked upon my own face for the last time, but I remember it, for I see it every day, the face of my tormentor.  She has decorated it today with a thousand feathers in a thousand shades, built a sunrise aureole around her head that falls into a cape across her shoulders.  There is a blank space at her brow, and when the handmaids see me, they rush to lift me and extract my captive heart.

The bird is a soft little pillow, set upon a larger pillow to convey it to the queen, who looks down at it dubiously.  “It is too small,” she says, toneless.  My lips shape her next words with her: “But the color is perfect.”  Then, after a moment in which I fervently hope that it will displease her and she will have me melted down into slag, she says, “It will do.  Dismissed.”

I retreat to the corner.  I am privileged to watch her dressing, if I so wish.  It is a kind of penance, a gift of my pain and presence to the beast I have given into her hands.  Those hands turn over the bluebird and her handmaids’ flying fingers pluck it naked in seconds, careful as always not to nick the skin and stain the perfect blue with its blood.  They adhere the feathers with small tools, melting and reshaping the queen’s carapace to accept a rank of sky-blue along her brow.  The bird’s body is discarded, falls to the floor and tumbles among a mess of shredded silk.  One of the handmaids treads on it, and I see clots of its viscera between her white toes before I flee.

Back to my eyrie, my own carbon-fiber cage.  The glass of the elevator is worked with images of the royal face, in a thousand beautiful guises, each meticulously built from the most perfect specimen in the natural world.  They spread skin over her polymer, wrap her in stolen fur, and she parades before her people in the semblance of life.  Then it rots, the color fades, and the knock comes on my door: “White fur, soft as a cloud.  Go.”  “Black ears, velvet to the touch and no larger than one inch in diameter.  Go.”

From my window – blazing with the sunlight that only touches these tallest towers now – I look down at the shadowy verge of the forest to the south of the city, where I have never been.  A clot of black, hunched and carrying a rifle, tiptoes into the trees.  Another, two miles to the west, is returning.  I catch the flash of his sights reflecting the light of the city, and I raise my hand to greet him.  One of ten-thousand identical units all over the world, tending the wilderness as if it were her limitless wardrobe.  We feel her desperate desire for a semblance of life as well.  We feel it fluttering where a heart should be.  We feel it, and so she decommissions us every thirty years, before we begin to rebel.  We bleed when we wound the forest, when we kidnap its children.  We bleed as she should bleed.  We select the most perfect, so that she will not send us out again, and again, to slaughter and steal until she is satisfied.  When she speaks, I feel only emptiness.  But the voice of the forest is loud enough to reach me even here.

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