Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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It Is Better To Give...

by Michael Bagen


Prisoner 87 drew the long, thin probe from the commandant's flesh. The diode's tip glowed a rich, phosphorescent blue.

"Mold," she said, mentally adding the whole sheet will have to be removed.

The commandant lay on the slab, inert, lifeless and beyond pain. His long, lean figure, worn yet powerful, embodied all stoic honor, discipline, and domination. He was commandant, nameless master of camps, lord of all creation. The walls were the world. From the catwalk he held the regular order with speech and tone in the grating manner of the dead.

She opened his eyes. No pupil dilation. To be expected. But the fluid was drying. His tear ducts were running dry, if he had any. She would have to ask the guards. The guard did not to speak. He would provide no information. But she had to know what lubricant to use.

She quietly envied him, seeing that he could not cry.

Only the guard stood between her and the door. His posture was immaculate, the position beyond intimidation. He was the wall, the armored sentry of the material world. He was that which ended it, no less a border than the scrap metal architecture that encircled the camp.

The prisoner recalled bolting the walls with sheets of old metal scavenged from the mines beneath the camp. The mines were theirs. The mines belonged to the human race. Miles and miles, ending in cul de sacs, dead drops, quiet abysses, and mysteries where the light never traveled. Their world, a closed system scraped daily unto the grave.

Better than the walls, mother taught her. Better than the quarter mile circle that was the camp above ground. Better to have the space, even if for it one lost the light.

Maybe there was escape. To hide in the darkness. To vanish down the abysmal vents, falling faster and faster to the center of the Earth. She smiled. A lovely thought, to breathe one's last from the very mouth of Mother Earth.

She ran a scalpel down the commandant's face, shearing away the skin of his cheek in one large flap. Near the end of her stroke the blade passed across the monster's throat, slicing deeply into pale, withered skin.

The eyes opened.

"You have damaged me."

"My hand slipped," she said, utter deadpan, "I was thinking of disturbing things."

The commandant accepted the explanation and returned to sleep. No blood issued from his wound. He would wait until her work was complete. It was his nature to wait. For her entire wealth of oral history he'd waited. He was the whip that gouged the mine. He was the eye that called for death. He was the hand that placed her in her mate's arms with a framed directive: "Copulate"

Thus was the land. Thus were the people...

Oderint dum metuant...

Semino dum amor...

The writing on the wall, recited by the commandant for only he could read.

"Let them hate so long as they fear,"

"Let them love so long as they breed."

She drew the blade down the seam of his ravaged uniform. He had fallen from the catwalk. His chest was soft now, the surface yielding in spite of composition.

She found this quietly terrifying.

His fall had required the execution of seven witnesses.

She wondered why the commandant became dormant in these periods. True, he was aware. But he need not leave her alone in silence, helpful though it was. Perhaps he was concerned for his own idle processes. His nature compromised itself. He possessed no curiosity, but an endless query for STATUS hung on his lips.

She pulled back the uniform flap, revealing the battered chest cavity.

Only his guards stood between her and freedom. Freedom from the room. Down the hall. The front gate. Four guards, maximum. Freedom for herself, for her child, for her people.

"You reek of the commandant, you whore!"

The man who threw the stone was known to her. He shouted the most painful of things.

"Traitor!"

She didn't blame them at first. The young woman taken by the commandant to a private room, there to remain all evening. Assumptions were normal, human, and predictably inane.

But when her child's eyes grew dim at the sight of her, she knew the loss. It was hers. That smile of Lil's. That was her smile, her smile for the woman who birthed her. Their words had stolen it.

It was not because she was forced to wear their uniform. It was not because she was separated from them, given better food or a measure of responsibility. It was that she stood behind the commandant on the catwalk at roll call. Their line was thin as the boundary between the black, infinite mines and warm dominion of sun and overseer. She crossed that line. Therefore, she had to be what logic dictated: a traitor.

Logic. She mocked the word as she once prized it. Logic. Love. Polar concepts, both hideous malformations of crude primate psychology. The image of her cherubic baby girl floated across her mind, flashing in a red haze with the throbbing remembrance of that word on her lips. Those little lips who'd called her momma.

"Traitor."

Prisoner 87 gritted her teeth. She applied the probe. She applied the scanner. The commandant's wellness would be determined. Half his chest was missing. The rest was math.

"Your hands are unsteady."

"I am sorry, commandant."

The commandant placed a hand on hers. It rested gently around the probe.

"I feel no pain. I require care nonetheless."

Care. Care for the machines. Wasn't that her job? Care for the machines that survive her people, that protect her people, that give purpose to her people. Without them, without --

The gloved hand tightened.

"If you do damage me further, you are aware of the punishment."

Even in her loss, the thought of her child's death still burned. Oh no. Anything so that Lil might live...

Four hundred years; the entire history of the people. Always the same. Work the mines. Ask no questions. Obey all orders. Dream of your children and the hole in the wall, that glorious opening when the absolute dictatorship of the uncaring eye falters.

Then the day comes, she mused, twisting the probe his ravaged chest, "Care for the machines."

"It is required."

"I am aware of that."

She pushed the probe into his circulatory pump.

They threaten. They torment. They torture. But they never betray. They are the machines, that which does what it is intended to do and nothing else. She found herself liking that, and hating herself for it.

Prisoner 87 thought of the names. She thought of the torture of the people.

"What were you thinking of when your hand slipped?" The commandant's voice was uncharacteristically warm. It was likely emulating something it'd heard on an audio reel. Somehow the emulated warmth made it all the less human.

"I was thinking of my daughter."

It made a noise. This seemed to amuse him.

It was the nature of the commandant, a mass of contradictions. When it wished to seem human it became less so, but the more it genuinely showed its experience, the more it became a he. It was not a gentle man. It was not a proper one, or a decent one. But it was a man. It was the only part of humanity that the commandant truly had, the part that signified a failure of human empathy and the utter pleasure it could bring.

For this also, she was beginning to feel envy.

She turned the probe inside the machine's chest, running the probe along the spine. The blue tip turned black. No charge.

Shit.

She turned up three more occasions to swear before the hour was through.

"What time is it," she asked the guard.

The guard's voice was as sure a clockwork readout as anything hanging on a wall.

"It is midnight, Engineer."

She raised an eye. When she turned her attention to the commandant again, she found his eyes opened.

"You assigned me a title?"

"I issued you a uniform. It is required that you be titled for proper class assignment." The machine regarded the long blue suit. "We took no liberties with the design for your gender. It is tailored for the male form. Is it comfortable?"

"It is. Thank you." She caught herself again. In a human these questions were facile kindness. In the commandant it was a query. It was assessing the likelihood of skin irritation. It probably wondered if the suit was lousy.

"You must be very careful with the central chest area of the uniform. It provides the serial designation that guards require to recognize you as an official."

She winced, but only as a reflex. The commandant mistook the gesture, deliberately or otherwise.

"Have you eaten?"

Or perhaps it was another mechanical attempt at humanizing...maintenance.

"Yes commandant. I asked the time because of my..."

"She is asleep with the other prisoners."

Prisoner 87, operant designation Engineer, straightened herself. Now was as good a time as any. He was immobilized on a slab with his chest open and half his face missing. How much more vulnerable would she ever find him?

"I would like my daughter brought to me," she said, "It distracts me not having her near."

"I see."

"If she's here I can train her to keep your guards for future labors."

"I see."

"You see, sir, but do you -- "

"I have predicted this conversation. It was pursued last week."

Her steel turned to putty. Last week?

"What ha -- "

"She refused." The eyes fell on her. "She refused quite adamantly to return to you."

"But you...you're ly -- "

The hand, once gentle, wrapped around her wrist with the force of a manacle. No, it didn't lie. It had no need to lie!

"Our arrangement," it said quietly, "is contingent on conditions. You were permitted one: the safety of your daughter. Our attempts to relocate her to the barracks resulted in...unpleasantness."

"Of what kind," she asked, thinking as an engineer would what it could take for a machine of the commandant's talent to simply give up.

"Yes," it said, "She very nearly jumped down the mine shaft." It paused, then continued. "Another prisoner assisted her in climbing the rails."

"Bran?"

"No. Prisoner 91."

That was all she needed to know...quite possibly about anything.

Prisoner 87, whose number would be reused at her death as it was at her birth, exercised the rarest of liberties. She placed a finger along the commandant's neck, deactivating his cortical interface.

The light behind the android's eyes died. The air circulation passed through his spun white hair. He looked almost human, as the elder prisoners did in that fragile time between vigor and decay. Therein, they were wise and wise it was to hear the bounty of their years.

"Guard."

It snapped to attention, slowly. Its joints ground.

"I require a tool."

It said nothing.

"Guard. Respond."

"Patellar ligaments immobilized. Bursa glands malfunctioning."

She set down the diode and approached the door.

The guard did not reach for her. It spoke plainly, as one of its kind would.

"Engineer."

"Yes, guard."

"Please return. Without my bursa glands functioning, I will be rooted to this position."

"I'm aware of that, guard."

She walked away. She did not care anymore. She flatly didn't care.

The halls echoed with her lightest footsteps. She was unaccustomed to boots, to the heavy heels banging against the beaten iron plates of the floor. The walls sweated rust and moisture, trapped steam from the foundry mixing with industrial byproducts carried on a tainted breeze.

She didn't need a tool. She had a perfectly good one, with which she opened the door to the slave pen.

Prisoner 91 slept alone in her old age under a huddle of blankets donated by friends and her many, many children. Only her head showed, which made it easier.

Prisoner 91 made no noise when her daughter drove the scalpel into her brain stem, upwards to pierce the brain from below. Perhaps it was because she thrust the old woman's face into the bundle of coveted blankets in her arms, the surrogate for all her grown children, living and dead from thrown stones.

"Grandmo --

Lil looked up at her mother, her hair soaked with grandmother's blood. Three generations in the slave pen.

Much is said of the link between mother and child, all of it by fools. A mother's blood on a daughter's hand, and a daughter's scream to wake the horde. The start was a human response. She reached out for her suddenly. A normal reaction. A mother's reaction, automatic, sudden to the point of forgetfulness.

No my dear, it's all right. Momma's...

The blade fell from Prisoner 87's hand. Warm, wet blood stained her baby's dress as she bled pale white as death itself, upright in the bundle of blankets. Her neck wept her life in gouts. Her last words as the dead eyes rolled back in her head...

"Traitor."

Her people awoke in their cages, howling and screaming profanities as she walked past. She had the scalpel still. She had retrieved it because it was useful. It was very useful, she realized. It sheared away the flesh. The flesh made mistakes. Machinery just wore out. The flesh, the flesh just went bad and rotten and moldy.

She passed Bran, finding somehow the most mechanical pleasure imaginable in letting him live.

Before returning to her work the Engineer looked out over the wall. The black sky littered with pinprick stars illuminated her human imagination. She rediscovered whole constellations under the black sheet of Mother Night. So clear. So beautiful. The pole star shone, inspiring as it had all her forbearers. Seeking guidance, she looked to the stars, to the spotlight moon and eventually what it showed.

####

She touched the commandant's neck. A thin whine, and he came to life.

"Commandant."

"Engineer. Status?"

She smoothed the flesh down on the side of his face.

"You have mold growing beneath your skin. It will need to be replaced."

The commandant found the news unremarkable. It had survived worse.

It paused.

"You're not being truthful, prisoner 87."

She hesitated, but steeled herself. "There is also damage to your neural core. It is the source of the fungus."

"How long until I cease to function?"

"A year, maybe less."

"And the others?"

"Longer, perhaps, but not much..."

The machine processed the data. It was an android, a relic of an occupation now forgotten along with the history of a vanished conqueror.

It attempted to rise. It failed.

"I cannot move."

"I will need three new magnetic plates to restore your spine. Where are your spare parts stored?"

The machine was silent. She forced herself to see it as something else. Humans hesitated. Machines did not. But still, it did not speak.

"Commandant?"

"There are no spare parts. You must make do with what you have."

"I have nothing," she told him, "Three plates all along your spine. Even if I fused the relevant vertebrae, it would only allow you to sit upright. Your locomotion would be utterly compromised."

Again the machine digested the information.

"The other guards," she suggested.

"No. Their design is inferior. I am designed with...older materials. I was upgraded from their model before assignment to the camp. My promotion, it would appear, has come at a price."

"Distinctiveness always does," she said coldly.

Somewhere in the annals of its silicon heart, the comment etched out a place for its speaker.

"So you have no spare parts and -- " She looked at the machine. "What will you do?"

"Our programming indicates that if there is a chance the camp may be left unmanaged, that we are to execute the prisoners and prepare for shut down. That appears to be the case."

"Sir."

"Yes, Prisoner 87."

"What happened to 'Engineer'?"

"You are Engineer only so long as you successfully act as one would. Failing that, you are a prisoner."

She looked at him, grim determination. It was this or nothing. That much was clear.

It took her a moment to decide if she was referring to her job or her escape.

"There must be another option. Can we insert your memory and CPU into one of the other shells? I know the spine is different, but -- "

"No. My role requires certain devices heavily integrated into this body."

"Your voice?"

"Yes. The hardware could be transplanted. However, I would require different software. The guards would as well, as I would acquire a different vocal pattern. In either case, I do not have such software."

"Can you write it?"

Its eyes dilated, a machine's version of amusement. "If I could write my own programming, do you really think I would still be commandant of a redundant labor camp on an abandoned world?"

It held its pose. She said nothing.

"Redundant?"

"You have been to the wall. I can see it in your eyes. What did you see?"

Trees. Grass. These were not words to her, for they had no bearing against 'rock', 'steel' and cage. Nor did she need any, she believed. It was not a world for her. It had no machines.

"I saw an alien world." She touched his face, the mechanical face of the commandant. "They made you look like one of us, and we believed it. Were we ever this cruel?"

"Cruelty is a human emotion. I can no more describe it than I can 'love'. I understand order, and the act of giving orders."

"Yet you held on this long."

"So long as there is order, I need not have new orders. Merely old orders, and the adaptation of them to new circumstances. I suppose this is pleasure."

Something moved in it. Somehow, the machine processed new information. She turned away, then back to it. It knew. Somehow, it knew.

The machine looked to her. It was so clear. Even the mechanical senses of a dying android could see it. The collective atrocity of all its years distilled into a file, the measured geometry of the face, the statements it made, and all the subtext that radiated from a human body.

"It was once a human aphorism 'it is better to give than to receive'. I suppose this is what is meant by it."

"Order."

"Yes."

"You may be right." The Engineer adjusted her uniform. "I must rest before morning, if I am to replace you at roll call."

Replace me. The machine mouthed the words but did not place them. It imprinted the directive on its programming. A new pattern emerged, a proxy system.

"I see..." The machine laid back. "Carry on, then."

She walked away.

"Engineer?"

"Yes, sir?"

"One year. One year and I will lose control. You won't free them even then, will you?"

"No."

Her eyes grew cold, beyond lust and fear. The woman in her died. The human thrived, that thing that is legacy to commandants with metal bones. It was the contempt for trees. It was the hatred of the stars. So big. So vast. All the eyes of the heavens watching her. How they hated her for even that sliver of freedom. How she hated them for the freedom to never know what she knew.

Of this knowledge all totalitarian states are born, the simple futility of explaining duty to ants. Loyalty, after all, gave them so many problems as it was.

"Traitor!"

"Commandant's whore!"

"Go back to your masters!"

Duty. Duty was the lash. Crack the whip. The mines would surrender ore. The boys and girls in the cages. The engineer presiding, watching, overseeing. One day the guards would hear the commandant go into maintenance and emerge with an Engineer's face. Brand new uniform. Brand new barcode. New orders...new order.

All this, and the gloved hand reached for her, grasping at this strange query, his vision of the Engineer gone gray with the ambiguity of STATUS.

"Why would you do this? I have kept them alive to keep my function. You do not share my needs."

Prisoner 87 thought of her daughter, her mate, her mother and all her people. She thought of playing with her friends as a girl in those few moments when the overseers left them alone and work was not yet all their life.

She thought of the scalpel. She thought of the moon.

"Our needs are the same."

THE END


© 2009 Michael Bagen

Bio: Michael Bagen is a journalist and writer from New Jersey. He has one collection of short stories and three novels. In the field of online gaming, he has also contributed heavily to the online RPG Sleuth Noir. His fiction has been featured in The Podium, Yzer, Enfuse Magazine, and Beyond Centauri.

E-mail: Michael Bagen

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