by Erin Cashier
I walked through the wasteland on the night side of Frash. The tracking dot on the screen has stopped. Thyan is either sensibly waiting for me to catch up to her and lead her out before her suit stops running, taking a break before foolishly pushing on, or dead.
Stop running. Let me find you. I can see you in the dark.
“I’m not wearing a skirt –” she protested. She was wearing a men’s work suit for a disguise, with her hood up but faceplate open. Red curls that almost matched the New Mazd flame logo peeked out on either side of her face.
She was a beautiful child.
When we reached the relative safety of the broader portion of the bridge, I set her down, and she held my metal hand, five fingers of flesh wound around one of my metal claws. “Thyan, this has to stop. You can’t keep running.”
“The Daena will come to find me.”
“He seems to let me do a lot of the work,” I said, and gestured back over my shoulder with my free hand. “You do realize that’s half a planet back there? You can only carry so many batteries.” The nightside was cold, and the suits were imperfect. Where had she found it? There were rooms in the dormitory that I couldn’t fit into — I could only imagine there were chambers in it, once boarded up, that the girls had managed to chisel free.
“There’s always next time.”
“Thyan, there can’t be a next time. Please. Stop running.” Not that I could blame her. The dormitory that I guarded was a grim place of stone and steel. The girls were the only life in it — whatever I was now didn’t count.
“Daena will –” she began.
I made a sighing noise, now a century old habit. “There is no Daena. That side of the planet is lifeless.”
Her face crinkled up like a bag exposed to vacuum. “Don’t say that. Daena’s my friend. You just can’t see him.”
I gave up. “No, but I can see you. You know what my eyes tell me?”
“What?” she asked.
She laughed at me, let go of my hand, and skipped almost all the way home.
Who could blame them? It seemed a good idea to be on an isolated fringe colony when there was a war going on. We all thought we’d wait for the war to end. It didn’t occur to anyone that the end might be permanent.
And Frash is a light-dark world. Just as the permanent night of space does sinister things to a man, so does the permanent light of an unblinking sun. No matter that the colony was designed to be almost self-sufficient, that the gardens of New Mazd were lush and kind — the relentless light gave some people a fierce hunger for the dark.
Hundreds jumped, before control of Al Araf was settled and some semblance of order was regained. Humanity became too damn precious to waste, if we were indeed the last of it, and everyone got a locator chip installed.
And that’s how I knew that Thyan was on the nightside again. She didn’t jump, she’d made it over Chinvat, and now she was wandering around in the darkness, until the packs that powered her goggles runs out and she’d stumble, lost, until her suit stops keeping her warm, and the final chill sets in.
“Think they know we’re here?” he whispered.
I glared. Lots of background noise here. Birds cried and insect buzzed, but the sound of a piss-scared man asking a question had a certain ring.
“Think they –”
The sensor on my wrist and everyone else’s sent out a warning alarm. Gas. We slammed on masks as birds dropped from the trees and insects begin to bob in puddles. At least now, I wouldn’t have to hear Adar’s questions.
I never ask her how she escapes. I know she wouldn’t tell me, and I’d never hurt her to find out. When she wasn’t running, or planning to, she made sure the little ones got raised up, and that the older ones came quietly when it was time.
I couldn’t blame her lust to see the outside world. I just didn’t want to see her go.
That’s the thing about fighting your own race. If you’re lucky, the language doesn’t shift for awhile, and you can still tell when they’re cussing at you. And even if it does shift, you can usually still tell by inflection.
“Get up, Druj!”
I struggled to my feet, glad to still have them. My hand, with all of the sensors embedded in it, was severed off days ago.
“Go Druj, go!” the rebel says, pointing with the barrel of a gun. Adar and I — fucking Adar, why’d everyone else die, and not him? — make our way down the path that the rebel has indicated.
She swung her head around defiantly. “Because Daena’s waiting for me.”
I’d been a dense man most of my life, and the addition of machinery and gears hadn’t changed that, but even I could put two and two together. “No. You’re scared of the Factory.”
“Am not,” she said.
“Are too.” Hell, I was scared of the Factory and I’d helped to build it. I’d seen the inside. The things they did to women there, in the name of propagating the species — Thyan had three years left, maybe four if she was lucky. Then she’d go inside, and never get to come out again.
I’d voted against it. But we were a hundred years out since the Separation and no sign of the Emperor or the rest of the universe, not one single signal, not yet.
“Next time, I’ll find Daena. Or he’ll find me.”
“Maybe we could find him together?” I ask.
And she looks up at me through squinting eyes behind her faceplate. “You can’t see him.”
“I can see everything.” It was true. My eyes could see across all spectrums, including heat and UV.
Thyan shook her head. “Gotta see him without these,” she said, pointing at the her faceplate, closed now, protecting her eyes from Chinvat’s belching ash and fumes. “Gotta see him here.” She pointed at the place where my heart should have been, where woven bands of lamimetal were instead.
“Stupid Druj. Walk! Walk!”
This is what I wanted. The rebel points his gun down for a second, to make a shoving, moving, gesture. I grab the end of it with my remaining hand, ignore the heat as rounds pour out of the barrel, and shove it backwards, into the rebel’s chest. He grunts, the wind in his chest is gone, and then he’s down in the water, gasping like a gassed bird. I yank the gun up and out, and smash the butt of it down into his face one-handed. His nose breaks, and red blossoms. Another smash, this time with my boot, and he’s not coming up again.
“Time to go,” I say, looking at Adar, who is watching in horror. None of the rounds hit him. I can’t say I was trying hard to miss.
“Walk, Druj. Walk,” I say, and took point ahead of him, making my way down the path.
Other little girls ran over. Sometimes I caught them and brought them back alive. Sometimes, I didn’t.
“Three,” Lieutenant Behram said, walking around her body. “Three in the past hundred days.” He took her suit off. Gasps went around the room at the sight of her naked flesh. Some of them men here had never seen a woman before, much less a nude one. My job as guardian had been, up until recently, not focused on keeping the girls in the dormitory, so much as it was keeping the men of the colony out.
Seeing her wealth of flesh stretched out in front of me made me feel all the more metallic. I hadn’t known her name — I’d ask Thyan that night. I curled myself into a corner of the room, barely fitting, my cooling fins scraping the ceiling above.
“There has to be a reason,” Behram said. “They talk to you.”
I had answers, and I had the truth. I tried the answers, first.
“They’re looking for an imaginary friend. Named Daena.” No one wanted to hear the truth.
“They say he’ll rescue them. Say he’ll find them, and lead them away into the light.”
Behram kneed the table holding the corpse. “Well this one missed the train.”
Their home camp was close. We found it, easy.
Adar had a What now? look in his eyes, and I gestured for silence before the dumbass could say anything.
Boys played with marbles, girls played with dolls. Bunch of enemies of the Emperor, these were. And yet — the enemy of the Emperor was my enemy too. I brought the gun up one-handed and steadied it with my opposing wrist-stump.
“No,” Adar reached out, and wrapped his hand around the barrel of the gun, just as I had the rebel’s, earlier. “It isn’t right.”
We’d both been on this planet for a month. We’d killed women and children before. It hadn’t seemed to bother him then. “It’s a little late for morals.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t find them now.”
“Fuck you Adar. Get in line. You do what I say, here.”
“If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” The Emperor’s favorite pronouncement. Felt just as pompous to say as I thought it would.
“Sorry, Srosh.” Adar shook his head and stepped out into the camp. Thirty seconds later, a warning would have sounded, people would have run for cover, dropped down into the tunnels, or found guns to shoot me back.
But none of that mattered, because three seconds later, he was dead — and I was starting in on the rest of them.
We were having one of our meetings where we pretended that society as we knew it still existed, and that we were all still drawing a pension from somewhere in the great beyond.
“Can’t you do something about it?” Lt. Behram paced back and forth at the front of our room. He’d already asked me that in private, a day before, but here he had to make the show of asking again.
There were rooms I couldn’t fit into, corridors I couldn’t go down. I let the girls keep to themselves a lot of the time, and they had time on their hands, to explore, to chisel, to dig. The wing they’d been given had only one official entrance, and had, up until Thyan, had only one exit. I shrugged my bulk in an apologetic fashion.
“Well the Emperor wants us to do something about it –” he continued.
This pissant colony leader was calling himself Emperor now?
” — we’re thinking about blowing up the bridge. Thoughts?”
I would have blinked with surprise if I had eyelids.
“Three people aren’t that much –” began one soldier.
“That’s pre-Separation thinking, Mohor,” interrupted another. “Wombs are important. Got to continue the race.” Behram nodded at this reaffirmation of the new Emperor’s party line.
I raised my metallic hand. “We shouldn’t waste explosives. They’re a finite resource.”
A cloud passed over Behram’s face. I was right and he knew it. I could watch him weigh his options — demoting me, putting one of these clueless men in my place, a man who’d never seen a girl before, who might be tempted to waste her womb for their own sake, rather than the colony’s.
That and the fact that I’d made sure long ago that I possessed the dormitory’s only key.
“Fine then. Double the guards on the bridge.” A groan passed around the room, and men looked back at me. I ignored their anger.
And doubled guards wouldn’t make a difference. I knew that, too.
I walked back to his corpse, and toed it. Stupid fuck. Had to go and grow a pair at the last possible minute and the worst possible time. At least he’d died with some honor.
“Druj!” a voice shouted. I turned.
A ten year old had the drop on me.
This shit wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t taken away my hand. If I’d been a decade younger, maybe, or a percentile smarter. I saw his gun raise as I raised my own and then I was lying on my back.
This sky was blue. Not the right shade, but — close enough.
I avoided direct eye contact with anyone until I went into a dingy bar that I’d last seen thirty years before. I don’t think they’d cleaned it in the meantime.
“What do they look like?” I got asked by a drunk, halfway through my fifth glass.
I know what he wants to know. The girls. He’s never seen one himself.
I don’t answer.
He leans across my table. “You’re the thing that guards them, right?”
“My name is Srosh,” I respond, finishing my drink.
“I heard some got out,” he says, slightly wistful. And then with reproach: “And that you let them die.”
“I’d do a better job than that,” he says, his voice beginning to slur. “I wouldn’t let ’em go. I’d hog them all to myself.” He wraps his arms around air and makes exaggerated kissing sounds. Other patrons titter.
I stand. The bartender looks at me and gestures — don’t pay. Just leave.
“You need to do a better job,” the drunk says, poking at my back. I turn around and stare at him.
Maybe he’s right.
I knew what that meant. In the army of the Emperor, almost dying was often worse than death.
“Do I have a choice?”
The doctors above me laughed and I went under again.
“Hello Srosh,” she says, grinning at me, with that try and stop me look I’ve come to know so well.
“Hello Thyan.” I wish I could grin back.
There’s an awkward moment between us. A thirteen year old girl, and a cyborg babysitter. Wouldn’t think we’d have much in common — but —
“I’m probably going to run again soon, Srosh. Tonight, maybe.”
“Good. I was getting bored.”
She wheels away on one heel to head back to the rooms behind her. “Thyan –” I call after her. She stops, but doesn’t turn.
I ask a question only liquor could bring on. “Thyan — is there really a Daena?”
She looks back over her shoulder at me, red curls bobbing. “Yes. Oh yes.”
I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes weren’t looking back. I could remember seeing sky, right before I’d — well, whatever it was that I’d done. I hadn’t died. They hadn’t let me.
“My eyes were fine –”
“You came in with severe damage — you’ve been made suitable for heavy off-world duty. Your arms have been refitted to carry up to a ton, and we’ve rebuilt your torso and legs accordingly. We have construction duty on a colony planet in mind for you –”
“My eyes — were fine. Before –”
The doctor in the mirror behind me folded his arms. “We needed to –”
I clenched my hand into a fist and the man shrank back. “We were just doing what we were told.”
“My eyes were fine!” I slammed my new metallic hand into the mirror. Plastiglass rippled, deformed, and reformed, once my hand lifted. Nothing could break it. Too bad the same wasn’t true for me.
I never looked into a mirror again.
“Double the guards, eh?”
Static hisses while his finger holds the button down in angry silence before he speaks. “Go find her. Bring her back. If she doesn’t come back alive, don’t come back yourself.”
“Blow me, and blow the bridge.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
I see a wave from a rock up ahead. I circle it, and find her there. She’s taken off her suit. She must be freezing.
“Time to go back, girl.” I sit beside her.
Everyone talks slower near death, as the chill sets in.
“Please?” I ask, nicely.
She shakes her head. “Daena’s gonna come for me.”
“Thyan, there’s no such thing as the Daena.” I take her hand in mine, with a memory of touch.
“I know. But he’s still gonna come.” Thyan leans against me.
“They’re going to blow the bridge up.”
She didn’t respond.
“I wish I could take you back.” There were a lot of things I’d done that I wished I could take back, if I thought long enough.
“Sorry, Srosh.” She snuggled up against me. I looped a metal arm around her shoulders, willed my heat to her, wished she had more time. “You always cared. You were the only one.”
I nodded, unable to cry.
I take the picture from her as we walk. It’s sweaty from its time inside her suit. It’s tall, and it has wings.
“Pretty good picture, Thyan.” We haven’t gotten around to cracking open the jars with bird DNA, so nothing has wings on this planet, yet. There are picture books, though. The girls have them secreted away inside their rooms. “Shows imagination.”
“Thanks, Srosh,” she says, and squeezes my hand.
I shouldered Thyan’s body, suit and all — the suit could be recharged and reused, even if the girl could not.
I walked, off the bridge, past Al Araf and into New Mazd. I walked to the gates of the Factory.
I lay her down in front of it, spreading her arms wide, like the wings of the Daena that never came.
And I went back to my room in Al Araf. There are explosions in the distance.
Chinvat is falling.
Thyan’s hope sits there, mutely. Four limbs, like a human, and two sharp points, jutting out, one to a side.
The single light source overhead casts my shadow across the floor.
My shoulders. The huge shoulders they’ve given me, with attachment points for my mechanical arms, and my cooling fins. Their shadow swells out, takes up the whole room — just like wings.
I am the Daena.
I just didn’t do what I should have done in time.
The first women went in kicking and screaming. Because of that, I helped them build the walls extra thick.
The only things that could have stopped me were the grade eight explosives they just spent on destroying the bridge.
I start in at the door of the Factory. Thyan’s body is gone, but her Daena remains. I ripped the steel door off its seams and threw it into the street behind me.
Thyan was right. I will illuminate them.
I can see in the dark.
Erin Cashier lives in northern California and is a registered nurse at a burn ward. She has upcoming appearances in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Shimmermagazine.
Story © 2010 Erin Cashier. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish