Cast of Wonders 335: Skinned
by Amanda Helms
So Jian thinks he needs a new skin.
He says it like it’s no big deal, just a little epidermal clean-up, Oh ha ha how’d that peeling happen? But what he means is that he has to replace his rusting face. It’s harder to accept than a pinkie finger would be, or even a whole arm. His face is him, and Jian acts like tearing it off means nothing.
He heard from someone who heard from someone that the old Smythson Cerebral place has a working rejuvpod, so that’s why we’re sneaking into an abandoned biodroid repository at two in the morning. He’s hoping he’ll get double-lucky and find a compatible stem-skin.
Jian scans the darkened landscape, probably seeking a sturdy-enough tree I could hide in, except there’s nothing but wizened trunks and naked branches.
He’s also checking for bandits. One little apocalypse and they breed like rabbits.
But hopefully they’re somewhere else, looking for food. What’s left at the repository should only matter to people like us.
For like the tenth time, Jian says, “I wish you wouldn’t come, Brielle.”
For like the eleventh time, I say, “I’m coming,” because of course as soon as he got this rusting stupid idea in his head, I said he wasn’t going by himself. “I gotta assist you, don’t I? Make sure you don’t come back white.” His smile breaks out shinybright in the glow of our flashlights. It’s a smile you can warm yourself in.
Jian shines his flashlight along the walls, illuminating the warehouse’s loading docks where trucks picked up boxes marked “nonviable fungibles”–faulty femurs and hearts and livers –from the time before biodroids were grown whole. “You know the serials to watch for?”
“One-five-nine-nine-two-four-eight-three to one-five-nine-nine-two-five-three-nine.” For the past week, ever since it came clear we might need to replace his skin, the numbers have run through my head at night like a lullaby. His compatible serials are on the rarer side.
This next shinybright smile is like hope walking. “Right. Let’s split up. Stay in line of sight, okay?”
Skin buzzing with the satisfaction of helping, I take the left while Jian takes the right. The warehouse is full of shelving units vanishing into the darkness beyond our flashlights. Two dormant boom lifts sit near the loading dock. Most shelves are bare except for the caking of dust, cobwebs, and rat shit. One of the shit-dispensers scuttles across the floor when my flashlight sweeps over its hidey-hole. It disappears into a crack that’s nearly as wide as my fist.
“Brielle? You okay?”
“I’m fine.” I’ve wandered down a row of serials all beginning with two, so I’m in the wrong place. And I’m out of Jian’s view, which his guardian programming has him comment on, complete with empty threats of leaving me behind if I don’t get out where he can see me, immediately.
I trudge back to the open area. He’s standing next to a crate marked Internal Organs. It’s too small for early-model parts, so it must’ve held stem-packs for everything from new eyes to kidneys to ovaries, all lumped together like a bargain bin at a KwikMart. When my flashlight lands on Jian’s face, his eyes are pinched in a way I recognize: he’s thinking his programming screwed up its duty to keep me safe, and he shouldn’t have let me come.
The helping-buzz dampens. “We’re never going to get through this if I have to stay in line of sight the whole time. It’ll take hours, and the longer we stay here, the more dangerous it gets.” The we’s are crucial. Reminders that we’re partners, Jian and me, whatever his imprinting on me and programming try to make him think. Not guardian and charge, not even guardian and assistant. Partners.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, exhales. “Okay, calling distance. I don’t hear you every five minutes–”
“Yeah, yeah. I know.”
“And stay on this level. My friend said the ‘pods are up on the top floor, but I don’t want you heading up without me.”
He picks at the spot where his skin is peeling. I don’t think he realizes what he’s doing. “I mean it–”
Some of his skin sloughs off and plops to the concrete, revealing the bloodred of biosynthetic muscle.
Jian notices me staring at the blob of flesh and wrenches his grimace into a smile. “Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” He gives me a gentle push. “You take the east wing, I’ll take the west. Call out every five minutes.”
“Got it.” The words are small, like someone picked them up and squeezed all the juices out.
“It’ll be okay, Brielle.”
My back to him, I lift a hand in response.
The east wing of the repository is more stacks of looming shelves. Don’t know what makes me think looming, ’cause of course shelves can’t do anything but sit there, holding whatever crap people plopped on them. Scanning the crates’ serials, I move past the ones outside Jian’s parameters. Some are marked Errors. If we had more time, maybe I’d be curious and see what “errors” got left over when the Santorini caldera erupted and sent the world postmortem.
“Not trapped under a thousand kilos of shelving units that collapsed on you in a freak accident?”
“I think you would’ve heard the crashing and my screaming if that happened.”
A creak startles me. It quietens. My stomach clenches so tight I worry the few kcals I’ve managed to eat today are coming up again. Tense all through my body, I wait. Jian’s signal chirrup echoes through the shelving. He wants to get out of here.
Keeping low, I work my way back to the center of the warehouse. Can’t think how the raw spot on Jian’s neck will keep oozing if we don’t get him a stem-skin and into the rejuvpod. Can’t think about the creak. Can’t think it might be bandits. Can’t jinx it.
The urge to vomit waits at the back of my throat. What asshole human first thought androids should have fleshy bodies with organs and hormonal feedback loops and all that rustjust so they could feel and so created biodroids? Feeling’s a bitch. I wouldn’t wish my churning gut on anyone, and Jian can’t like his any better. Or maybe guardians’ bodies produce less syn-epinephrine than other biodroids. Maybe they’re amped up on devotion and love instead. Which are also a bitch.
More creaking, not as loud as before. I drop to my hands and knees. Dumb, keeping the flashlight on. I shut it off and shove it into my back pocket.
Sweat seeps from my palms. What if someone else broke in, and that someone has no problem using their own flashlight to track my wet handprints and finds me?
My head rams into a shelf. I yelp. —Rusting rot–
A clank sounds right behind me, like someone bumped into the shelving. I kick out, trying to sweep whoever-it-is, but the whoever catches my foot and holds it. Not even pulling me off-balance. Jian.
I exhale. He has to feel me trembling under his hand, but he doesn’t mention that, he just says my name, real low, and sets my foot down. I scramble around. He fumbles for something. Wattage reduced, his flashlight comes on. Its filtered yellow light gives a circumference of less than twenty centimeters. Jian’s thighs bunch like he’s ready to launch at enemy forces. Well, he was designed for it. “Bri, what happened?”
He’s holding a small stem-pack. My damn heart springs up. “You found it!”
Jian doesn’t reply, just keeps assessing me.
“Couldn’t see. Ran into a shelf.” And even though I wish I had something to say that would make his strained, worried face slip away, what I say is the necessary thing: “Is it bandits?”
His worry-face gets even tighter. “I dunno, but we gotta go.”
“Out the way we came?”
Jian looks like he’s sucking battery acid. “Gonna have to be. I don’t wanna wander around this place for another way out and risk . . .”
“It may not be bandits.” My heart continues to ping happily. It feels even better than helping. He has his skin, and we’re gonna be okay. “It’s an old building. Old buildings make noises. Or it could be some animal trapped inside, walking on rotting floors or something.”
“You’re right.” But he’s still sucking on that battery acid as he edges in front of me. He pauses to place the stem-skin in his pocket, deep down so it won’t fall out. He changes the flashlight’s color to red, trying to make us as close to invisible as we can get. “Follow my signals and stay quiet.”
I tap his calf to acknowledge. My heart’s settled a bit, its pings not as high, and I try to remember we’re in danger.
But in this world, we’re always in danger, and with Jian’s stem-skin secure in his pocket, it feels like we’re back to everyday “how’re we gonna eat” danger. Leaving the repository means we’ll have to find a working rejuvpod somewhere else, but some are still around in the residential areas. We’ll figure something out. We always do.
We’ve been crawling for maybe ten minutes when metal snaps somewhere in front of us. We freeze.
Then there’s scuffling and running footsteps and a real scream. Can’t tell if it’s biodroid or human. Dampness returns to my palms while the moisture drains from my mouth.
The screaming goes on another few seconds, then fades into choked gasps, like someone’s been strangled.
Jian rocks a little. He mouths hide, then snaps off the flashlight. He presses something cylindrical and smooth into my hand. The stem-skin. My throat’s full of itself. He can’t mean to leave me with his skin. If his programming’s making him do something stupid, like pull a “mother bird distracts the predators” routine–
I reach for him, but the damn ones and zeros already have him and he’s gone, footsteps light like he’s trying to keep quiet, but I know better than that: it’s his fake-out. Making just enough noise to seem like a mistake.
He leaves his flashlight off, though. Turning it on again would be too obvious.
The stem-skin in my palm weighs as much as a rejuvpod. I want to go after him. I want to pull him back to me. We can wait out the bandits; they may not even realize we’re here, since they already found someone else. But going after him will only put him at greater risk.
If he had to, he’d put me to sleep to make me stop following him. It’s what guardians do. The safety of the charge above all else. It’s in his programming.
My throat’s tight and my stomach’s cramping again, damn emotions–but I feel around for a row of the shelving, turn down it, and touch for a clear spot on the shelf. I find one and work my way behind one of the crates.
Maybe fear has something to it, ’cause now my hearing’s heightened. Jian’s quick-stepping it deeper into the warehouse. He wants me to make it to the exit on my own.
I screw my eyes shut, trading the dark warehouse for the safer blank of my eyelids.
He must’ve traveled over fifteen meters by now, past the rows of shelving, but despite the distance, his gasp arrows into my bones, and his cry stabs my heart. I grip the stem-skin so tightly my nails cut into my flesh. When I lick my palm, I taste blood.
“Got another one!”
The shouted words, when the kill happened without talk, make me jump. Jian has to be thinking: Good. If they’re speaking, they think I’m the last one here. He’s probably urging me, Run, Bri.
But I can’t. I tense my whole body, but every so often, my arms quiver.
The sound of the punch would rattle my bones if I weren’t so damn rigid.
“Not human. We got us a fleshmech.”
Someone whistles. I wish I knew how many there are. Bandits usually travel in packs of at least five, but I’ve heard just two. Any more than eight, and they tend to turn on one another.
Jian says, “Let me go. I got nothing for you. I just came here to spend the night.”
“You’re wrong about that, fleshmech. You got plenty for us, just as you are.” Something makes Jian inhale sharply, and my stomach wants to crawl all over itself and outside my body. I picture them, the bandits: clothes in rougher state than mine and Jian’s because they travel more, fight more. Big-ish, because face it, that helps in the postmortem world. And they’re sizing Jian up, finding him wanting. Part of guardian biodroid design, looking nonintimidating. Jian appears not much older than me, about fourteen, young enough not to have filled out with muscle, easy for people to think he can be pushed around.
Which is one thing we have going for us.
The voice rises. “Whaddya think, Shiva? Will selling him whole be enough to get us a cycle? Save us the trouble of deconstruction.”
“Maybe. Depends on what class of ‘mech he is.” Something cracks, and Jian groans. I don’t think he has to pretend anymore. I can’t feel my hands, though I know I still have to be holding the stem-skin. I wouldn’t let go. Couldn’t.
“What’s your class, asshole?”
This pause lingers. “Assistant.” What’s happening, that he believes lying will keep me safer than attacking?
A sharp crack. I think Jian’s jaw just smacked the concrete. “Then where’s your master, huh?”
Spitting noises. “Don’t got one. Not anymore. Look, I just wanted to rest–”
“Liar. You don’t got a master, you go insane. And you ain’t insane. So either you ain’t an assistant, or you got your master round here somewhere.”
“I don’t got one. I’m here because I needed to rest in a safe place.”
The bandits don’t comment on the irony of that word, safe.
Jian’s gonna yell at me for this, but that’s okay because he’ll be alive to yell. I turn on my flashlight and shove the stem-skin in my back pocket, then lunge out of my hiding spot, banging my knees on the shelving and ripping my shirt. The rest of the warehouse goes silent, so I know the bandits hear me.
The helping-buzz is not a buzz. It is an inferno, and I am a masochist who loves to burn.
Creaking again, this time behind me. A hand wraps around my neck.
The two bandits, who I name Dumbass and Dumberass because of their nearly identical protruding foreheads, dark beady eyes, and lank blond hair–though Dumbass is a girl and Dumberass is a guy–carry me out to what was once the front entrance. Their flashlights are at full illumination, and they’ve set up lanterns around the perimeter. A thick layer of dust lines the reception desk.
The person they killed was human. You can tell because they took a chunk out of his skull, checking for the metal brain that, when extracted and sold, could feed a postmortem village for a month. But instead of metal, only gray globby stuff spills from the man’s skull. Bile burns my throat.
“Found this kid hiding in some of the shelving.” Dumberass’s breath hisses against my cheek. “Whatcha wanna bet the fleshmech’s a guardian, not an assistant?”
Jian and his two bandits are grouped at the far end of the reception hall, near the skeleton of what, long ago, might have been a ficus or rust like that. Each bandit holds one of Jian’s arms. One of his eyes is shut, the flesh around it red. His shoulder cants at an odd angle. Dislocated, or another fake-out?
He sees me through his one good eye and bucks against the bandits’ grip. One of them grabs the edge of his skin and pulls. It comes loose so quick it’s like his body doesn’t want it. I bite the hand that’s round my chest and Dumberass shouts in pain and Dumbass hits the back of my neck and lights explode over my vision and Jian’s still screaming so I bite again and blood washes over my tongue and there’s a ripping sound and pain screams across my scalp and I think half my hair is gone.
Something sharp presses against the underside of my ear and stabs down and Dumbass grabs my ear and tears and it burns and there’s a flood of hot wetness and pain, pain, I don’t know why humans had to pass it on to us–
“Fuck, this one’s ‘mech too!” Dumbass shoves me to the ground. Her voice shifts to high screech. “Fucking guardian imprinted on a fucking ‘mech!”
A flash of motion as Jian breaks free from the bandit restraining him. I smile. Shoulder was a fake-out.
Dumberass rehooks his fingers into the gap below my ear and my head tries to explode.
A cut-off gasp and Jian is here, hands covered in blood. Rust, is it the bandits’ or Jian’s or his body rejecting his skin?
But Jian pulls Dumberass off me and jams his palm into Dumberass’s nose. Cartilage crunches and then Jian’s hands plunge into Dumberass’s eyes and dig deep and he’s creepily silent while Dumberass screams. Jian pulls his hands free and the bandit slumps to the floor.
Dumbass gapes at Jian like she’s never seen a guardian doing what he’s meant to do and it doesn’t compute with her understanding of the world. She lunges. Jian ducks and kicks out a leg to sweep her, like I tried to do before I knew it was him. Only he’s a guardian and I’m an assistant so it works for him. Dumbass crashes to the ground and Jian slams his foot onetwothree against her throat and she’s still.
Jian pants as he kneels beside me. “Oh, Bri.” His hands brush my neck. My blood’s flowing more freely than his.
“We match now.” I close my eyes.
He tugs at my skin, trying to push it back in place. “Brielle,” he says, and it’s the first time tonight that his voice has sounded panicked, “where’s the stem-skin?”
I didn’t think my heart could ping anymore, but it does. “Still in my pocket.” I tell my hand to pull it out, but it doesn’t obey. Jian gets it for me. Good. He can take it upstairs, find the rejuvpod, get his new skin. And while he’s doing that, I can sleep right here.
Seems like a decent spot, now the bandits are dead.
Instead of leaving me, he pulls me into a sitting position. Knifesharp clarity shoves all the fuzziness from my brain. I wish I was still in that floating place, because then I wouldn’t have to see Jian’s eyes go soft, and I wouldn’t have to feel his hand on mine, trying to offer comfort and reassurance when there can’t be either.
Because the skin he found, it isn’t for him. It’s for me.
I say a garbled word that’s meant to be his name and a plea both.
“It’s okay, Brielle. I’m doing what I’m supposed to.”
Only because some glitch in his programming let him imprint on another biodroid. Only because he’s broken.
“Stay still as you can.” He hoists me over his shoulder. The effort makes redness seep out the wound in his neck, but he’s stumbling forward while inside I’m screaming, and he must know it, because words spill out of him, combo explanation-apology-command. “I never found my serials, Bri. But I saw yours, and I thought it’d be good to grab it. Just in case.” His thumb rubs my hand. “Who says guardians aren’t prescient, huh?” One of his feet hit a stair, pushes up. He grunts.
“After my skin’s fixed. We’ll find a stem-skin for you. Right?”
He hesitates. “Sure.” I struggle, because the pause means he’s not sure he’ll be able to go looking after he gets me to the ‘pod. But I’m only hurting him–not helping–so I settle.
Hanging down his back, I get glimpses of signs directing visitors to the rejuvpods. Before much longer he sets me against the wall to rest while he shoves a door. It slides open with a shriek. “Wait here,” he says as if I had a choice, and goes in.
I drift on something that might be clouds.
Too soon, he returns and I’m pulled back into harsh pain. “Found one with a live fuel cell, Bri. I’ve already inserted your skin. The ‘pod’s prepping it.” My skin.
My vision’s blurry, but from the sound of his voice, he’s wearing his shinybright smile.
We’ll find him a stem-skin. We will.
He hoists me back over his shoulder, murmurs “Sorry” when I can’t stop myself groaning.
My sense of time is screwed up. It’s like he steps into the room of rejuvpods, takes half a step, and then I’m in the open ‘pod.
Jian leans against the side of the ‘pod, probably hoping I don’t notice how he uses it for support. His fingers flash across the interface. “It’s an older model, so I’m sorry, Bri, but it’s gonna have to reboot you.” Maybe I make some noise–my body seems to be doing lots of thing I never gave it permission to–because he says, quick-like, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here the whole time. Ready?”
Another swipe on the interface, and the lid flows over me, and then there’s ten centimeters of high-density, semitransparent polymer separating me from my guardian. My partner. His eyes slip shut and he sinks to the floor, lips opening in a sigh like he’s just set down a heavy burden. Me.
The ‘pod chimes and rattles alarmingly, but it also sprays some goo on the side of my neck, making sure I don’t bleed out before the suspension liquid can fill the ‘pod and let the nanobots do their jobs. Jian’s shoulders lift and fall with his steady breathing. He has one hand placed against the side of his neck. The suspension fluid starts to fill the chamber. My breath rasps in and out of my lungs, leaving small clouds on the polymer that linger a second and then disappear, making Jian go fuzzy and then clearer.
He stiffens and stands, shakily. I hit the side of the pod, but he turns from me, gestures no. A shape enters through the open door.
Jian moves first, darting in quick, aiming for its middle. The goo’s done its job, so I thrash and bang against the ‘pod. But it has its directive, and that does not include letting me out.
Jian’s barreling takes him and the bandit into another ‘pod. It rocks, but doesn’t fall. The bandit recovers first and slams Jian’s head against the ‘pod. My throat is raw and my heels kick into the shallow puddle of liquid, splashing it against the ‘pod. Jian darts out from under the bandit’s arm. Jian stumbles, but straightens and jumps on the bandit’s back, wrapping his arms around the bandit’s neck. The bandit stumbles from ‘pod to ‘pod, slamming against them, but Jian hangs on. His face is a mess of blood and torn flesh. I bash my hands against the ‘pod again, and now it sees fit to chime a warning tone, but I ignore it.
The bandit’s movement slows. He makes one last lunge against a ‘pod, but it’s weak. When he leans away from it, Jian lets his feet drop back to the ground and gives the bandit’s neck a violent twist.
Jian is still first to topple down. The bandit lands on top of him. It takes Jian too long to crawl out from under the body, and when he does, he has one hand pressed against his thigh, and there is blood blood blood and a knife stuck near the large vein in his leg.
Wet streams down my cheeks and pain lights in my abdomen, but the knife-edge focus is still on my brain (my electric brain, and that’s all flesh-brains are anyway, electric impulses in cages of meat). I should’ve bled out in reception. Except for Jian.
But I failed him. I couldn’t help him.
I pound once more against the ‘pod. Jian’s eyes roll in their sockets to look at me, and he shakes his head. Asking me to let him go.
Fuck humans, because they gave us all this feeling, they made us have to grow and be weak. It would be easier if Jian and I had never met, or even if we had to connect, if there was no way for it to go but for us to meet and for him to imprint on me, then at least it would’ve been easier if we didn’t have to care.
I don’t pound the polyurethane again, but I keep my hand on it. He knows what I mean and so he pulls himself across the floor, leaving so wide and long a path of blood that I almost let my hand drop, but I can’t I can’t and he’s still a guardian and knows that what I’m asking him to do is another form of protection, and so his programming makes him do it. His love makes him do it. He reaches the ‘pod and stretches his hand to meet mine, separated by ten centimeters of polymer. I keep my hand pressed to the ‘pod’s side even after his falls away.
The fluid flows over my knees with a slop. The wound on my neck means the liquid affects me sooner than if I’d absorbed it only through my pores and (eventually) ingested it through mouth and nose. That’s good, because I have felt too much this day, and I am ready to be numb.
I am ready to lose my skin.
The suspension juice reaches my mouth, then my cheeks so they’re numb too.
I’m not ready. Who am I, after this, without Jian?
I’m suspended in the liquid, and the nanobots are pulling off my ruined skin, like they would have Jian’s, and I’m not ready but I can’t leave just like I couldn’t leave for Jian Jian I’m not ready I’m not ready because I never said goodbye.
Even if it was–is–just programming, I should’ve said goodbye. I should’ve said thank you.
(Cognitive reboot in three)
About the Author
Amanda Helms is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Cackle of Cthulhu anthology, Daily Science Fiction, Future Science Fiction Digest, and elsewhere. Amanda blogs infrequently at amandahelms.com and tweets with a smidgen more frequency @amandaghelms. She and her husband live in Colorado with their increasingly lazy Boxer mix.
About the Narrator
Abra Staffin-Wiebe loves optimistic science fiction, cheerful horror, and dark fantasy. Dozens of her short stories have appeared at publications including Tor.com, F&SF, Escape Pod, and Odyssey Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, where she wrangles her children, pets, and the mad scientist she keeps in the attic. When not writing or wrangling, she collects folk tales and photographs whatever stands still long enough to allow it. Her most recent book, The Unkindness of Ravens, is an epic fantasy coming-of-age story about trickster gods and unlikely heirs. Enjoy an excerpt at: http://www.aswiebe.com/moreunkindness.html