An essay by Tethys, as provided by Raluca Balasa
Art by Luke Spooner
Across the bar hangs a sign reading Humans Only.
A man with a seeing eye dog sits exactly twenty-three meters from me, hazy in the smoke under the fire basins. As my colonel banters with the bartender, I study that dog. It is not human. It is an improvement to its owner’s body just as my cybernetic parts are an improvement to mine, but no one tells this man or his dog to leave.
Because dogs are not what started the fourth world war. In the beginning, CanRobotics sent its robots to maintain the Canadarm and the space station. It seemed like a good idea, since the men and women on duty kept getting homesick. At first it was just little things going wrong: astronauts reporting glitches in the technology, minor accidents, power failures. Months later, everyone on the space station was dead and even Earth-bound technology had been affected by the virus. The CEO of CanRobotics was the first on Earth to die by drone attack. Those robots are still up there, replicating themselves until they’re ready to make a move for Earth. The space station has become the deadliest military base in history.
The public’s distrust of machines is everywhere now, in the orange glow of the fire these communes use instead of lamps, the giant sundials replacing clocks because people can no longer stand to see gears. When these villagers look around the bar, they find comfort in the wooden countertops, the old monarchs on the walls. I see only delusion, a refusal to acknowledge the danger I face daily.
Pain sparks through my remade body. First my right shoulder where the shrapnel tore through, then my left leg. These are nothing but sense memories–my cybernetic parts have no synaptic receptors for anything but motion signals. Less than forty-percent of my flesh is now receptive to pain.
But if I am no longer human, my body doesn’t realize it. I still feel longing, if not hunger. I still seek closeness, if not intimacy.
Corrina dances with a farmer in a plaid shirt, her body moulding to the music while mine curls defensively around my drink. She is water in a stream. I am a relic lost and buried at sea: once precious, now obsolete.
You said I was perfect, I want to shout at the colonel. He watches her from beside me at the bar, the silver in his hair glinting in the firelight from the basins above. I down my ale. What are flawless skin and a symmetrical face next to flaws carried comfortably? My colonel prefers her crooked legs, the tinge of sweat on her skin, and the tobacco on her breath when she leans close.
On the stage, a bard sings of dragons and knights: a common metaphor for the political situation these days. Men sing along while others drink directly from the ale casks, then are dragged away when they fail to produce their ration stamps. A fireplace crackles in the hearth on the far wall, and above it glistens an oil painting of Queen Helen, England’s last reigning monarch, with her hunting dogs. Rapiers and deer heads decorate the walls. After so much time in the military compounds, I can’t help seeing the real world as archaic. Fear has regressed them hundreds of years, and done worse to me.
Colonel Jurgis shrugs off his coat, revealing his maroon-and-silver uniform and the military insignia on it: crossed rifles over a globe. The Army for Humanity is stitched across the insignia in tiny, glittering letters. A hush falls around us; even the musicians play less heartily when they notice the eyes on us. I can’t tell if it’s my racing heart or the smoke in the air making me lightheaded.
“Military folk, eh?” the bartender says. He tries to sound confident–cheerful, even–but I can tell he’s nervous. “What brings you to Princeton?”
“Passing through on our way to Camp Miller,” Jurgis says, and stretches as if he owns the place. “Another whiskey on the rocks.”
The bartender continues eyeing the insignia. “You don’t got any of those contraptions, do you, friends? Princeton’s a peaceful place. That mechanized devilry isn’t welcome here.”
The gears in my limbs tighten, preparing for flight or self-defence. I wish we’d never stopped in this place. The communes between military compounds in southern England are distrustful even of their protectors nowadays. He sees inside you, my mind screams. He knows. But I force myself to smile and say, “We’re off-duty.” Indeed, neither Jurgis nor my partner dancing across the bar have rifles with them. That’s why they brought me.
The bartender gives a wavering smile. “‘Course, ‘course. Thank you for your service. It’s just that we don’t want no trouble, yeah?”
As if our technology-tainted fingers would draw the enemy like blood draws sharks. If this man knew what I am, he would burn me at the stake. He wouldn’t understand that I was made specifically to avoid the virus that controls all technology. The drones above might be able to turn our weapons against us, but my human sentience makes it impossible for them to control me.
I reach for the whiskey when it arrives. Before I can drink, the colonel’s hand settles on mine. He shakes his head. I wish he wouldn’t touch me. The way I feel about him is not enough to bring me back to life, just enough to keep me guessing.
“Easy, soldier,” he says. The corners of his eyes are wrinkled and his thin lips are invisible when he grins. His nose is too long, his eyes too pale.
“I’m fine,” I say.
“You can still get drunk,” he whispers, bringing his lips close to my ear. I know the gesture means nothing save secrecy, but a shiver rolls down my spine, and I struggle not to lean into him. He is my superior, my protector in a world that hates me. Nothing more.
“I don’t need you to remind me which parts of me still work,” I manage.
“Boo-hoo.” His hand lifts from mine. “Be glad you’re still alive.”
Only I understand that his callousness is a caress. My lips, rebuilt with fat from my hip, twitch into a smile.
“What news from across the pond?” I belatedly realize the bartender addresses me, not Jurgis. I swallow, afraid my voice will give me away, that he will be able to tell what I am if I speak too much. I need to keep him from looking at me too closely, but I can’t tell him the truth: that the United States has joined Canada in funding CanRobotics on the space station. If you can’t beat them, join them. That would only spark more fear.
“I can’t divulge military information.”
“Are they … multiplying up there?” The bartender whispers as if afraid the creatures on the space station might hear. “Can’t die, can they? Heard they were made to maintain each other, like bees.”
“They’re continuing to send down drones, and we’re continuing to destroy them.”
“You ought to be careful in those military compounds. Those demons’ll turn your technology against you. Use your radios to listen to you and your televisions to watch you from the space station. If you want my advice–”
“We’re off-duty,” Jurgis says. “I’ll have no more talk of the war.”
Being here, I can almost pretend the war doesn’t exist, but it’s impossible to hide from the signs. An old man weaves around barstools with a poster in his hands, asking, “Have you seen my little girl?” He wears a patched coat, and the sight of him extinguishes the warmth I’d felt. Though I sit at the other end of the bar, I hone in on the picture like a sniper on a target. Every detail becomes sharp. It’s a child’s drawing, a stick figure with straw hair. So many have lost themselves in the war. Perhaps I am lucky that I only lost my body.
When I turn, I catch the bartender’s eye. I’m not sure what gives me away–maybe the unnatural turquoise of my eyes against my brown skin, or the scars around my hairline–but he pales and I realize he knows. “She’s one of them.”
He addresses my colonel. Without blinking, Jurgis whips out my papers. “She’s with the Eighth regiment, under the command of Colonel Jurgis. She’s on our side.”
But the bartender begins to shake and back away. “Those dirty ants can hack into any technology they please, no matter how human it looks! Take that thing out of here!”
The chatter at the bar extinguishes. Everyone turns to stare at me. From across the dance floor, she turns too. We lock eyes.
I was seven when I first saw Corrina.
Our ox died in the red plague that year. Ma and Pa, too, but only the ox mattered, because he pulled the cart that took my grandpa to town to sell his okra and cabbage. Just so happened the Army for Humanity was offering fifty credits for new recruits that year.
Neither Pops nor I cried when the lieutenant came to take me to the headquarters in Prague. “I’ll come back for you, Teth,” he said, gripping my hand. He looked so sure I almost believed him. “In the meantime, you’ll have food and a warm bed.” More than he could offer.
A week later, I saw Corrina standing at the platoon’s rear, her calves splattered with mud after our five league hike. She was biting her lip and the corporal slapped her for it. “Soldiers do not fidget,” the woman snapped. To this day, I don’t know what possessed me, but I coughed to draw her attention and then picked at my nails for good measure.
The corporal’s insignia glittered on her breast, her boots tapping like a metronome on the packed dirt as she strode toward me. My eyes watered in the sun; I couldn’t look up at her. She grabbed my face in her long-nailed hand. “What’s your name, private?”
“Tethys, ma’am!” I shouted. This close, she smelled of stale makeup. Her lipstick was drawn past the line of her lips.
“You’re a sorry lot,” she said, still holding my chin. “But I’ll make soldiers of you yet. The first thing you’ll learn here is that there is no more you. Here you are more than a community; you are an entity.”
She never asked our names again. We became Platoon Five-Four-Eight.
I grew to admire Corrina. She had a passion for calculus and advanced functions, while I showed promise with a rifle. We were an obvious match for drill runs. She cracked every lock and code, neutralized every mine in the minefield, while I covered her. In that way we became one–I was her armour, her bones, and she was my brain.
By the end of our third year, Corrina had become the platoon’s only cryptanalyst. She loved turning linguistic possibility into mathematical certainty, she once told me. Our drone casualties dropped by two-hundred percent. As long as we had Corrina to intercept the enemy’s radio signals, to tell us when and where each drone would be, we were invincible.
Then one day a grenade rolled into our tent, as though blown in with the first autumn leaves.
For the second time in my life, I was faced with a choice that wasn’t a choice at all. Without Corrina, our brain, the platoon would not survive. Bone and muscle, on the other hand, were easy to replace. I covered her.
Turned out they didn’t even need to replace me, only my arm. The fingernail on a finger. No loss to the entity at all.
“She’s not hurting anyone,” I hear my colonel saying once I tear my eyes from Corrina’s. The blind man’s dog tries padding toward me, but its owner holds it back. Dogs can’t get enough of me since I lost my human status. I used to think this is because my soul–or whatever you want to call it–is better for my sacrifices. Now I know it’s because dogs are stupid.
“That thing has no business here!” the bartender says. Spittle quivers on his beard.
Colonel Jurgis doesn’t explain that my digestive system still works, as do my taste buds, and that blood still circulates through my core. Rather, he says, “My money is mine to spend as I please.”
Just a month ago, my salary had been mine by law, but with this latest loss on the battlefield–my last natural limb–I’ve also lost my rights to own property and earn wages. I’ve crossed the Forty-Flesh barrier. What I make goes to the regiment now.
Whoever heard of paying a tool? I can still hear World President Amina Bhutia’s campaign speech from five years ago. We must fight fire with fire! Returning to the middle ages soothes peasants, but the army can’t wave swords at enemy drones. Let us make our own weapons, weapons we can control. Replace limbs with resilient metal, but keep the core human. That’ll show those soulless bastards!
I was made to protect this bartender, even though he chooses not to remember. “Let’s leave,” I whisper.
My colonel doesn’t flinch at my words, doesn’t seem to feel my hand on his arm. Only when Corrina’s voice behind us says, “Ready to go?” does he stir.
“This place is a shit-hole,” he growls, scattering some credits across the bar. I trail him and Corrina wordlessly. A holstered weapon.
I was sixteen when I met Colonel Jurgis. Already twenty-percent machine, with a cybernetic arm, right kneecap, and left hip. My superiors told me not to worry. I was decades away from the sixty-percent cutoff. Chances were I’d be killed in battle before then.
Corrina and I were promoted to the Eighth regiment that year. I’d been sharing my successes and failures with her since my induction into the army, but it hadn’t made us close. I think she felt guilty, or maybe I felt resentful; either way, we almost never spoke despite being constantly together, and when we did it was about work. I grew to think of her as a tumour–leave it and it saps your strength, but cut it out and you bleed to death.
The colonel stood in the middle of the obstacle course with a whistle around his neck, squinting in the dust his troops stirred. The whistle’s glint blinded me when he turned (I still had my natural eyes then). We approached in our camouflage uniforms and trench boots, Corrina holding up her chin and I slouching in her shadow. We knew what was coming. Corrina, the famous cryptanalyst! No, of course you needn’t run drills. Tethys will take your exercises.
Colonel Jurgis studied us. My hand was shaking from holding the salute when he finally said, “Welcome to regiment Eight. To the ranks.”
“I’m a mathematical engineer,” Corrina spoke up. “I don’t train on the battlefield.”
Jurgis stopped mid-turn and frowned, which made his lips disappear. His hair was long and matted and kept in a knot. “Perhaps if you were less eager to single yourself out,” he said, “you wouldn’t be such an easy target for enemy drones.”
My hip tingled at his words. I’d taken the last hit on Corrina’s life just six months ago. Corrina’s mouth hung open, the first and only time I’ve seen her look stupid.
At eighteen I woke to the smell of sulphur and smoke. The barracks, normally cold at night, were stiflingly hot. I leapt to my feet and climbed to the top bunk only to find it empty. The walls glowed with heat, but I could only think of one thing.
My partner wasn’t down the hall or in the outhouses across the street. Snow crunched under my feet as I ran, the icy burn in my soles complementing the heat in my face. It was past 0200 in the morning, but the camp was ablaze with light and for a moment I thought the sun had risen. The alternating hot and cold currents made me dizzy.
Corrina had missed a drone.
I raced into the officers’ barracks. The smoke made a film over my eyes, but I didn’t need them to know where she’d be. I found her fleeing from the colonels’ quarter, dressed only in a soot-stained shift. She kicked and screamed like an animal when I gripped her. Instead of flinging her over my shoulder and taking her out of there, I pinned her arms behind her back. “Where is he?”
So I left her. A colonel was as important as a cryptanalyst, and besides, she had missed a drone. I used all the excuses I could think of.
The frostbite in my feet helped me reach him; if I’d felt the pain of the scalding floor, I would have turned back. As it was, I found him cornered by a wall of flames. He didn’t turn when I called his name. He told me later that all he could see was the white fire imprinted in his retinas.
I suffered third-degree burns on my face, scalp, neck, and shoulders. In the sickbay, white gauze covering my head, drugged by painkillers, he’d looked at me with more tenderness than he looks at me now, when I am more beautiful than ever.
My nose and lips melted off, as well as the epidermis on my face. The doctors amputated both my feet. The nurse smiled when she asked me what I wanted my new face to look like.
“Like me,” I answered.
Her eyebrow arched up her forehead–a fluid, thoughtless motion I would never again be able to achieve. “I haven’t the slightest as to what you looked like, dearie. What shall I tell the surgeons?”
Eyeing Colonel Jurgis in the waiting room and Corrina dozing on his shoulder, I filled the nurse with lies. I’d had raven curls, thick lips and eyelashes, high cheekbones, everything.
And that wasn’t all. Perhaps it was seeing them together–perhaps I thought completing the transition would numb my feelings–or maybe I’d given up pretending. President Bhutia needed volunteers for her mechanized combat force, and I was already mostly machine. The enhancements she required for her army didn’t seem so severe. At least this time, the decision to mechanize would be mine.
The night is alive with bonfires. Jurgis and Corrina squint, but my pupils contract in nanoseconds to accommodate the increased light. Before me is a billboard selling smiles and rifles. Join the Army. We’ll Make You Whole.
Thunder rumbles above. I look up and that’s when I see a speck in the deep, pulsing sky. The light pollution and smoke make the horizon a haze, but I see it as clearly as if it were the sun: a red fleck with a white tail coming closer. It’s not a star or an aircraft–I’ve been trained to identify those from afar. What I don’t know is whether its target is Princeton or something, someone, more specific. How coincidental that it should strike just after my arrival here.
Not mine. I whip to Corrina.
She grips Colonel Jurgis’s arm and smiles, and he smiles back. They both look so stupid, leaning there like reeds in the wind. I weigh the options in the time it takes an eyelid to flutter. As usual there is no choice, so I kneel on the sidewalk and extend my arm to take aim.
“Steady there, soldier,” Jurgis laughs. “Drunk already?”
I store the anger away. The silicon skin on my forearm retreats to reveal a rifle’s tip. I can hear the gears shifting in my arm, but not fast enough. People on the streets are coming closer to see what I’m doing, then recoiling when they do. Someone shouts, “Terrorist!” but I don’t let that distract me.
“Stand back,” I warn, amplifying my voice like I’ve been trained to do. “It’s an enemy drone. I can take it down.”
But they won’t hear me. A woman shrieks that I’m a murderer and the crowd before me scatters, refusing to see that I’m aiming at the sky. Hands grab my shoulders. I fire a single shot before I’m pulled back among limbs and heated flesh.
“Restrain it! It’s been hijacked!”
“The monster is up there! Let me take it down!” I shout, but they can’t see it with their human eyes. Distantly I notice Jurgis flashing his insignia and shouting before the crowd overpowers him too. His lips say: this is a military situation. We are here for your protection. But I can’t help wondering if it’s them or me he wants to protect, and if any of it really matters.
Then knuckles make contact with my face and blood fills my mouth. My heart thrums like it’s trying to escape my metal ribcage. Hands pin me to the concrete. I kick up to free myself of the man on top of me, and he flies across the street. I can’t help my strength now that I’m desperate.
So I wrap my hands around the arms holding me, then clench. Brittle bones shatter. The pressure on me lets up as my attackers scream and recoil. Before I know it, I’m on my feet.
The gun in my arm now points at the crowd.
The civilians back away, replaced by policemen who face me with batons and fibreglass helmets. “Get back!” one shouts. “We’re dealing with a rogue military weapon!”
I know I look insane, blood dribbling down my face, my machinery exposed. Even if I speak, who will hear me? Colonel Jurgis is on the ground, restrained, and Corrina melts among my faceless pursuers. I can’t tell if she’s seeking help or saving herself. She hasn’t looked at me since the first hit I took for her.
“Lower your weapon or we’ll fire!”
My eyes dart across the humans. I’m searching for a reason to save them, any of them. I am more like that drone–a force of calculated destruction, not cruel but programmed with a purpose–than I am like them. A rogue military weapon.
Slowly my gears shift, and I realize I have locked my ammunition into position. My mind weighs possibilities before the policeman’s echo fades. I can fire my gun a second and a half before the policeman fires his, taking down the drone, or I could amputate my tumour and become me again.
Join the Army. We’ll Make You Whole.
I lower my arm. While the militia rushes to restrain me, the light in the sky brightens. I can no longer see Jurgis or Corrina. The faces in the crowd become one.
Tethys no longer remembers her last name. She belongs to the Army for Humanity, which takes her time, wages, and parts of her body as it sees fit. Despite being mostly machine herself, Tethys dedicates her life to defending flesh and fighting machines. Her love for individuals outweighs her distrust of humanity.
Raluca Balasa holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her approach to writing is character-oriented, often dealing with love-hate relationships, antiheroes, and antagonists who make you agree with them. Her short work has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Aurealis, Psychopomp, and Grimdark Magazine, among others. When she’s not writing, she can be found playing the piano or spilling things.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Forty-Flesh Barrier” is © 2018 Raluca Balasa
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Luke Spooner