Maybe her toes curl over the edge. The view is vertiginous. Maybe her gaze is tethered to something along the horizon, so that she steps forward, to reach for it, and plummets. Past analysts and technicians and international arbitrators and project financiers and insurance salesman and automated messaging systems, past janitors and clean-bots wiping soap suds off rectangles of glass in mechanized sweeps, and is then a million custom-made, factory-spec’d pieces on the ground.
The vision turns static. She returns to the present, re-sees the too-bright light shining through the office window, the desk at which she sits, the tablet before her, the skirt to her pristine nurse attendant’s uniform with the unnecessary pocket over her left breast.
“We’ve another one.” Brianne turns to go, oak-colored hair bobbing where its edges curl against her neck. She turns back and sees the tablet. Sees the newspage with the splash of the deceased android’s parts all over the sidewalk, cordoned off by police tape. She frowns (in sympathy?) and shakes her head, much like a nurse is supposed to. “What is that, five now?”
Cecile rises from her seat. The tablet goes dark. The nurse smiles. “Where’s the patient?”
Cecile follows Brianne out the office and down the corridor where nurses stream, back and forth, intent on one task or another. The human ones are all perspiration and determined urgency. The mechanized ones are all forward gazes and chilled deliberation.
When they get to the operating room, Tom smiles a greeting at both of them before handing Brianne his clipboard, off which she reads as they enter.
“Came in this morning from the West Side. Sustained severe damage to the abdomen and the head. Brain case in need of replacement. Nervous system short-circuited. Initial scan shows his pain receptors are non-functional.” She puts down the clipboard, and they pass through another room and another until they enter a third where clean-bots are already sterilizing the chamber. On the metal slab rests the remains of a male android. The skin of his face has been peeled back to reveal the mechanical right eye socket. Oil and blood that looks like oil streak and pockmark the unsheathed left arm, patches of the same dotting the right wrist where it ends. The right hand lies, separated and unflexed, by the man’s foot. The legs, when Cecile prods them with gloved fingers, are loose. Unhinged gears poke against the skin from within. She runs her index over the point where one sharp end protrudes from the thigh.
Discomfort ghosts across Brianne’s face. Cecile schools her own features to show the same. Cecile’s tools sit on a tray by the bed. The surgical equipment hovers overhead. She makes a quick scan of the body, marvels at the extensive damage, lingers over the severed hand and the wrist to which she will attach it. The face, a half-grimace where it reveals false ivory teeth dotted with red and black, becomes a curiosity. She depresses a button, and the slab detaches at its center. The back half angles itself so that the damaged android sits up. With care, Cecile puts one hand to the man’s opened eyes, then tucks his head forward to exam the socket at the back of his head. She runs the fingers of her free hand along its ridges, picking out patches of scalp that had come loose.
“Have a connector brought in, please.”
“For later. In case he has sustained damage to his internal organs. There may be things I missed during my initial scan. I would like very much to see if there is deeper wounding.”
In a matter of seconds, Cecile is alone with the corpse. She pulls a chair closer and feels her face loosen, muscles relaxing from the soured expression she forgot she’d frozen them into for Brianne’s sake. For several minutes, she stares at the body. The muscles attached to the skeleton are lean and she imagines them flexed. The torso, which, when she peels the skin away, she can see in its entirety, has acquired a flatness. But telltale depressions tell the story of blows received. She presses against his side, closes her eyes, and sees the imagined memory of flesh rippling against the fist or blunt object that must have struck him there.
With a start, she opens her eyes and realizes where she is. Sparing him one last glance, she calls down her tools and begins to work. First, the legs. She tests the feet with the pressure of her fingers to detect deficiencies, then peels away the skin along his ankle to cure what infirmities she finds there. Her tools sizzle along the metal as she works. Smoke curls into her eyes, but she does not wipe it away. She sees with perfect clarity the fusing of sinew and steel and, where one had been separated from the other, she leans closer and joins them together.
• • • •
That fucking jab.
You know it’s all he’s got, so you try to anticipate it, and maybe once or twice you pin him with a counter hook and stagger him good. But whenever you corner him on the ropes, his head is never where you want it to be, so you go down to the body, but his elbows are like an extra plate of armor and before you know it, you’ve punched yourself over the ropes and he’s behind you. Just as you turn, he pings you with that jab. You stomp towards him and you’re at the center of the ring right where you started.
You’re the better puncher by half. When you catch him slipping, that thudding connect is the most satisfying sound in the world.
It’s too quiet. All you can hear right now, outside your own breathing, is feet shuffling against canvas. You’ve rarely been the bully in a fight, but you feel like one now. And already, you know how this is gonna play out.
The early rounds, he’s waiting for you to punch yourself out, so in the middle rounds when you’re slowed down, you’re just a standing target and he can let loose. But you know this, so you throw combos judiciously, and where they miss, they miss, and where they land, they slow him down just a little bit. But bulbs are flashing in your head and all of a sudden there’s a film of red over your left eye, like half a pair of old 3-D glasses, and your ear won’t stop ringing from that right hook half a round ago, then it’s over. The bell rings, and you just now hear it. The other guy’s lucky the ref came between you two, or maybe you are, ’cause now you can go back to your corner, fall onto your stool and catch your breath. Of all the defective parts you had to be made with, you got bum lungs.
They tend to you, swab the cut over your eye and splash water on your face, force the straw of a water bottle between your teeth, and jabber in your ringing ear about watching the jab, moving your head, slipping past him. But all you can think about is how badly you want to hit him. Just one good straight. Or a hook, right to the temple, to send him rocking where you can charge after him, and the bell rings and you’re back up, bouncing on your feet, gloves together at your stomach, stepping forward to begin again.
He looks at you like the fight just started.
• • • •
Maybe she’s barefoot, and the silt squeezes her toes.
Maybe she hears the crickets and the cicadas and is reminded of her home in the Bayou.
By now the water is up her nose. It slides up each nasal cavity and chills her brain like ice cream eaten from a waffle cone too quickly.
Maybe she keeps walking until she can’t feel the ground shift beneath her feet. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. Until the ripples caused by her descent have stilled and the crickets and cicadas and their music can no longer be heard.
• • • •
Cecile finishes scrubbing him, making sure to get the soot out from under his repaired toenails, clearing away the ash from behind his ear. She combs through his hair for small flecks of blood or char caught along his scalp and washes assiduously the skin inside his thighs where they flank his genitalia and where they had grayed with continuous contact. He looks like he’s sleeping or like he’s been turned off. The light shines cold on him. The air smells of burning.
When she finishes, her instruments rise into their slots overhead and seal over with glass. She steps back to better examine him in his entirety. He looks somehow less without his injuries. The smoothness, the ridges of muscle unperturbed, the face made whole, all of it has been rendered plain, its edges burnished, like a palimpsest.
She feels nothing but the emptiness of inactivity. The mechanic at rest.
Her search engine alert pings, and her eyes glaze over as she reads the newsfeed. An android’s body has been retrieved from the bottom of a lake.
She turns to leave so the others can go to work preparing the man for his physical therapy, but movement out of the corner of her eye stops her.
• • • •
It’s the eureka moment, that uppercut.
You slip his jab, and when he bobs, he’s not expecting the uppercut, so the knuckles beneath your glove connect with his chin and his head snaps back, and you feel like you’ve finally turned it around. He hesitates the next time he tries to weave and dodge your shots. His jab isn’t as trip-hammery as it was a few rounds ago. It still wallops you, though.
He’s planting more often, willing to stand in one place and trade shots and you don’t know if he’s just tired or crazy, and you look in his eyes and that’s when you see it. A dullness that tells you his elevator no longer goes up to the top floor. Suddenly, even though your shots stagger him and his brain should be telling his legs to fold, they don’t and he comes back. His hands have slowed and he doesn’t catch the hooks like he used to. The smack is as satisfying a sound as you’ve ever heard. But he won’t be finished.
All the while, he’s got that vacancy in his eyes, one of which is swollen shut. You’re waiting for the ref to call a standing knockout, the kid can hardly see, but the ref is shaking his head, so you keep beating the kid, and when he can, he looks at you, and you realize he doesn’t want it to stop either.
It haunts you, that look. Then you wonder why you feel haunted, why you feel bad for doing this to him, and by the end of the fight when the announcer gets ready to give the judges’ scores and their verdict, you glance in the kid’s direction and while his supporters crowd around him and congratulate him for lasting as long as he did, he’s smiling at something none of them can see. The fight you just won feels more like a fight you just lost.
The cameras flash and the lights make the ringing in your ear even worse, then the light gets to be too much and you’re on a slab of metal staring into a bulb in a room that’s all metal and glass. You’re not wearing your trunks and a woman is standing over you and staring at you.
She’s somewhere else, this woman, all dolled up like a nurse. And you wonder if, at that point in the fight where you figured out that uppercut, that kid wasn’t half-smiling almost like this nurse is doing now.
• • • •
You wonder if she fixed you up too good. You’re faster than you were before. When you shadowbox, your hands are a blur. You’d notice it in the mirror if you paid attention, but you’re too busy dancing to music only you can hear. Jab, straight, jab, uppercut, hook. Jab, hook, hook, straight, hook. You circle while you throw them, and everything feels new, and the urge rises in you to push it further, to go for longer, and with a start, you realize that you’re still doing it, you haven’t slowed down. Your bum lungs haven’t gotten in the way, not this time.
The round bell buzzes, and you stand straight and realize you’re not even sweating. Something’s wrong. It niggles the back of your brain, but you’re too jazzed by what you can do to do anything but shove the worry down to a place where it can’t bother you.
The round bell buzzes again, and you work on the heavy bag. The power shots thud with even more satisfaction. The bag swings back and forth, arcs higher and higher, and when the bell shrieks again, you hold the bag still and rest your head against it, barely huffing, eyes wide in marvel at this newness. You hold silent communion during that sixty-second rest. Then when it’s over, you’re a fucking whirling dervish.
When the fights get easier and easier, you try to find joy in other places. It’s not the winning that matters anymore. It turns into a game, figuring out different “how’s.” You try a fight where you stay on the outside even though the guy across from you’s got a good extra inch on you in reach, and you tune him up so that his kidneys start malfunctioning and, eventually, his legs give out. Then you try fighting from the center, waiting for the other guy to come charging in like you used to, and you weave, and you make him look like a bum with all that missing, then suddenly, a cut opens over his eye and his nose is busted, practically hanging off, and his cheekbone’s been bashed in and you’ve earned your fifth stoppage.
The botfight commission reps won’t call you out on augmentations because all your parts check out. The scans show nothing amiss, no banned chemicals in your system, just good fucking parts. And you forget what it’s like to get hit.
When it happens, it’s thunder behind your eyes and you wonder how he caught you. He’s not faster than you. But he’s a puncher and when he dings you again, maybe it’s because you’ve lost a step. Your hands are down, that’s gotta be it. But he slips through, right through your guard, and catches you behind your gloves, right on the temple.
The bell’s ringing is suddenly salvation, a chance to get your head straight and figure out how the fight got so changed so quickly. But another thought’s bubbling to the surface, another itch. This guy wants a brawl.
And you get up from the stool and the ref brings you guys together and you don’t get out of that center; you two are caught in a phone booth and you just trade and you can hear the crowd going nuts, and you feel the best you’ve felt in over a dozen fights. Because you’re finally giving as good as you’re getting. Or you’re taking as good as you’re giving. And that dopamine doesn’t kick in as much when you connect as when he connects on you, and when you stumble, vertigo swims the world around you, and your glove touches the canvas and blood drips from somewhere on your face and you reach for it with your free hand. The cut feels earned. You get up and the ref gives you a standing eight count, but you just look at him and smile-grimace behind your mouthpiece because you want to get back out there.
You don’t want to win, you just want to keep fighting.
The next four rounds are the happiest of your life.
And when they read the judges’ scorecards, you don’t even remember whose name gets called or whose arm gets raised. You just want to get hit like that again.
• • • •
Cecile scribbles notes in slow, practiced longhand on a sheet of unlined paper: specs of the man she fixed earlier today. A catalog of his new injuries, how much more extensive they were than last time, how much closer to extinction they’d brought him. She hesitates when describing the fissure in his braincase (why?), but continues over that hesitation like traversing a grain of sand stuck beneath the page.
He has become a frequent visitor at the clinic, and they’ve taken to removing his braincase while she operates, so that they can repair it separately. Some of the data is lost in the process, and Cecile has come to wonder where they’ve gone to, whether the man mourns their loss or whether his trips to the clinic are an attempt to purge himself of these remnants of someone’s previous life. Does he miss them? Does he miss the places stored in them? The people?
She does not know who or what he is, but most of the people around her are red-bloods and thus mysteries. They think her cold, a few whisper of autism, but no one knows really why it takes her longer to react as they believe she should or how quickly she learned her trade or why she doesn’t seem to mind staining her uniform to work on this man and others like him.
She is tempted, she writes, to sneak occasional fugitive glances into his braincase, to plug in and observe the data, but prudence obstructs her path. Should someone catch her, they would of course notice the outlet just behind her left ear, the one carefully masked by the way she wears her hair. Brianne sometimes tells me, she relates in the letter, that I should try to wear my hair in a bun, just to spice things up, but I only smile demurely (as I should) and say I prefer it this way. When Brianne wonders aloud if it gets in the way of Cecile’s work, Cecile replies with just the correct amount of chill in her voice that she works just fine. And Brianne does not question anymore how Cecile should or shouldn’t wear her hair.
• • • •
When he awakes on the slab, she’s washing her hands in a nearby basin. They’re pearly beneath the glisten of sink water. She flicks excess moisture away, then towels.
“Doll,” he says, and she turns.
“You’re awake.” No smile, no chastising frown. A hint of surprise at being addressed, and that’s it.
“How you fixed me up.” He raises a repaired arm, turns it over under the fluorescent light. Good as new. Better than that.
“It’s my job.” She doesn’t finish toweling until her hands are completely dry, he notices. “What I’m here for.” She smiles.
He doesn’t mind being naked, not in front of her. “But next time, mind not makin’ me so fast?”
“How do you mean?”
“My arms. My legs. They feel like they belong to someone else when I fight.”
She frowns, but the way a child frowns at a toy it hasn’t yet figured out.
“It’s not fun winning all the time.”
“You fight in competitions?”
He smiles, and he imagines it’s charming. Usually, it works. “Yeah. I’m a boxer.”
Her hands rest at her sides. There’s soot and oil all over her dress, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“Feels good to get hit sometimes.” He’s surprised at how seriously he means it. “Really, it ain’t fair to the other guys.”
“The other guys?”
“The ones I beat up.”
She lets out a tiny “oh,” almost like a gasp. “All right,” she says, then she doesn’t say another word, even as the others arrive and cart him away for his physical therapy.
• • • •
Maybe she doesn’t know why the two ends of the wire are in her mouth. But maybe she does know how, every morning, her breath frosts before her eyes as gold halos each and every viridian treetop outside. Maybe a tear falls down the side of her face.
Maybe when her braincase bursts into flames, she knows that the vision is lingering junk DNA, that it is false, that it is not hers. Maybe that tear manages to fall from her cheek and stain the floor before it too is gone.
• • • •
The clinic is soundless. The red-bloods haven’t arrived yet to change shifts and tend to their patients, so Cecile sits in her office with the plastic flowers that always smell the same and the rising sun casting the glow of four non-uniform trapezoids of light against the opposite wall.
On the desk in front of her, next to the pen and the parchment of the letter she has just finished, is a small knife she took with her from home. For a long time, she stares at it. Then, she picks it up and puts it to her wrist. The first prick brings no response, so she pushes deeper, and pain shocks through her arm. She drops the knife. Blood pools from the incision. Her breath comes in short gasps, and she opens her desk drawer and pulls out a small towel and presses it to the wound. Her brain is abuzz with signals. Tiny fireflies swimming in a frenzy. Dots of silver flecking her vision.
Sunlight gilds her desk. Her heartrate slows, and she realizes how soaked through the towel has become. In a different drawer, she finds her seal kit. She puts the nozzle of the small tube to her wrist where the incision begins and just before squeezing, she notes the pistons and gears beneath the muscle she severed. A strange urgency (fear?) puts the nozzle to her wound and runs it up along her wrist. The bleeding ceases. With gauze, she wraps the wound tightly and rises from her seat just as the first shuffling is heard from down the corridor.
She settles her desk, arranges everything as it was and leaves her office to greet Brianne, not noticing the polka dots of blood that have stained an arc down her skirt.
• • • •
His legs hang over the side of the slab. A few incision marks on his torso show as scar tissue, and if the metal cools his buttocks or his hands or his genitals, he shows no sign of discomfort.
“You get them too, don’t you.”
She’s drying her hands when he asks.
“They’re dreams. Or do you have them when you’re awake too?”
“I . . .”
He’s got sympathy in his eyes when he looks at her, and she sees it. He bows his head, embarrassed. “When I fight, it’s the only time I can get away from them.” He pauses. “I have these memories of me being a kid, you know? But that’s impossible. I was born like this. I started in this body, how could I have ever been a kid?”
“It’s junk,” she says, startled by how firmly she says it. “Junk DNA from our source brains.” She feels warm. Too warm. Blood rushing to all the wrong places. “In order for there to be sentience, there must be enough base information. A new consciousness may only arise out of a complex enough system.” She realizes she is twisting her towel, tearing it. She stops. “Hence, the memories.”
The silence is thick and changed and hurt between them. He looks up but stares into the middle distance, past her. “I dream about horses sometimes. Can you believe it? Horses. I’m in this stable, and I’m a kid ’cause my dad’s holding me, and he brings me close to one of the colts with this white lightning bolt coming down her head. Splits her eyes. Dad hands me a carrot and nudges me forward, and I hold the thing out. The colt snaps her head out. Grabs the carrot and I’m so startled I yelp. I’m watching the thing munch, then I turn back to Dad and say ‘more.’” His gaze fixes on her. “Apparently, I loved horses.”
“Someone else did.”
“And I bet someone else was getting their nostrils punished in there, and someone else was busy watchin’ that goat with nuts the size o’ cantaloupes walk by all bow-legged and whatnot.” He chuckles and hopes he’s being charming again. He looks up, catches the faint trace of a smile, but it’s probably just a trick of the light. “We’re born in this body. In this shape. We can’t grow.” He realizes how sad he is when he says it.
“But we can,” she says back. She surprises him by putting an awkward hand to his repaired shoulder. She’s smiling, and he can tell this time that it’s not a mistake. “We are growing.”
“You think, one day, we’ll be free of them? We’ll only have the stuff we’ve accumulated on our own?”
• • • •
When he sleeps, his repaired braincase reinserted after his latest visit, she makes sure the operating room is empty so no one will intrude on her. She pulls a small USB cord from her breast pocket, plugs one end into a separate connecter she’d been carrying, and inserts this into the back of the boxer’s head. The other end, she plugs into the slot behind her ear.
The world is suddenly an excruciating glare of light that sears her veins. Pain buffets her face from different angles, her ribs cracking beneath the pressure, but there’s no time to think on the pain, to figure it out, because her own arms are moving, her own fists connecting with flesh and with the metal underneath it, impacting it, denting it, being dented.
In the memory, she’s locked to his skull. But with practiced meditative technique, she manages a separation where she is able to observe the scene in its entirety, as he remembers it. She watches from on high as the two men, one of whom she recognizes, step past each other, throw their arms forward, blood staining their shorts and the canvas beneath their feet. It looks, to her, like random movement, but the longer she watches, the more she discerns the dance, the small steps and calculations, the pulling back of a shoulder, the arcing of an elbow, the twisting, at the waist, of a torso.
She remembers the time she cut herself, and her own reminiscent intrusion on the memory causes it to go static. But the remembrance passes, and the picture of androids battling is restored. Even plugged into his braincase, she cannot access his thoughts.
With a start, she realizes there are none. It is simply body moving against body.
She gazes, enraptured, drawn in by this insight. Though metal gleams beneath the skin where it has been broken and oil mixes with the blood that sluices down their chests and stomachs, they are no longer machines in her eyes, but animals.
In his head again, his retina has been damaged. The world appears to her as from behind frosted glass.
Absent thought, perhaps pain ceases to be a warning and becomes instead something to run towards, a reminder that one is alive, an opportunity to accumulate sensations and knowledge. Information. Data.
She understands why he comes to the clinic so often. Even though the athletes are unknowable in the midst of their performance, here is a space where the mind and the body hack each other, where they live in blessed union, charting a scorched course towards some end in the distance.
• • • •
A new sheet of unlined paper glares back at her, one word written where the salutation usually goes: Father.
She does not know why she begins each letter this way, who this person is or why she feels compelled to address him as such, but it feels correct. Today, however, words fail her. She does not know what to tell him.
Her drawer opens, and before she realizes what she is doing, she has the knife out in front of her, cleaned, sterilized, prepared. She unclips the gauze and unspools it, revealing the straight, puckered flesh she had severed. The blemish lives in ugly, garish colors against the lifeless alabaster of her forearm.
She has the knife to her naked wrist, then plunges it deeper than before, frowning against the pain, gritting her teeth, dragging the knife’s edge further up her wrist as hurt burns all the thought away in her head and there are only the synapses firing in her brain telling her to stop, STOP, STOP!
She’s on the floor all of a sudden, and blood squirts between Brianne’s fingers where she grips Cecile’s wrist. There is no moment for shock, only mindless, learned motion. Brianne seals the wound and hurries with a suture and gauze. But Cecile does not see the rest, as someone has closed her eyes and cloaked her world in thoughtless, dreamless black.
• • • •
Maybe the engine drones. Maybe it hums.
Maybe the snow-capped and pointed mountain summits below sing to her like invitations.
Maybe, when she angles her plane, the sun gilds those summits, baptizing the silhouette of her aircraft, piercing the plane’s windows to sheathe her own finely-tuned body in aureate flush.
Maybe she is golden all the way down.
• • • •
A hospital bed, white sheets, machines plugged into her, checking her vitals, a colorless ceiling, no glass windows, only walls, and one wire, fugitive, plugged into that socket behind her left ear. They know.
Brianne is at her side, eyes red from crying and from sleep deprivation, new wrinkles at their corners, fingers stiff and uncracked, a mucus-sodden tissue in their clutches.
“It will be all right,” Cecile says, because that was what she said to all her other patients. “It will be all right.”
Brianne looks up, surprise glinting behind a film of moisture. “We saved you.” She sniffs. “We got to you in time.”
“In time for what?”
“Your suicide.” Brianne composes herself, brushes back a length of hair that had come across her eyes. “Cecile, you tried to kill yourself.”
With a start, she remembers the women she had read about, who had fascinated her, the one who walked off the skyscraper, the one who’d drowned in the lake, the one who’d electrocuted herself, the plane crash . . .
“You’re an android.” It sounds like an accusation.
Cecile looks to the ceiling.
“Why . . . why didn’t you tell anyone?” She moves her chair closer. “We could have helped you.”
Like it was an illness.
Brianne backs away. “The others, in the news, they were discovered with a virus. They had been infected with malware during their manufacturing. If we’d known . . . we could’ve helped you.”
Cecile blinks and a tear slides, unbidden and unreasoning, down the side of her face. “So it was a virus.”
“It was only a virus.” She expects relief upon saying it the second time, to herself, but there is none.
• • • •
“I fight till I can’t fight anymore. Then they send me here. Then I go back out and I fight till I can’t no more. Then I come back. To you.”
That was what he had said the last time Cecile had operated on him, just after he’d told her again of the horses. But she is no longer tasked with repairing him. Reports indicate that his braincase had simply suffered too much repeated trauma. What little data remains is not enough to maintain sentience.
Cecile wonders if he’d been able to keep any of the junk memories, or if the only ones left to him had been those moments he’d accumulated after his birth.
The parchment is in front of her, but she has no office anymore, simply a cell where she has been quarantined until the virus can be removed. A misguided effort to keep her from infecting the other androids.
She wonders what removal will feel like, whether chemical manipulation will allow those who tinker on her to locate, control, and eliminate the circuitry in her brain wired for suffering. They will return her to her earlier state, flatten out her experience of the world, depress her waking hours and shroud her dreams in fuliginous gauze. Waking, but not alive. Not like he was alive, fighting in that ring. Tragic and human. Tragically human.
And that is when she finds the name for it. For the tightening in her chest whenever she sits down to compose her letters. That existential reaching, that void somewhere between her stomach and her lungs. The stiffness in her fingers. The shortness of breath. That flushing in her face as her capillaries expand.
It’s pain. Delicious, expanding, exacting, fulfilling pain.
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