Could She Wear Their Skin

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The station opened her eyes.

Machines whirred, the only sign of life in a still world. A beep filled the air like a delicate bell. It would sound again inside her for another summer, untended by her crew. Then she would again slumber.

Somehow during her sleep she’d been torn from her perch on the Brunt Ice Shelf, the incident unclear. GPS coordinates no longer synced. Satellites had fallen silent.

Worse, she’d failed her purpose. Her duty. The entire human race faced extinction with only her to blame.

The frigid currents of the South Sea steered the station over a gray calm. Vainly she examined the white caps for signs of ice. The floe sustaining her would soon melt, sending her into a free fall toward Stygian depths.

A finger of darkness reached out into the ocean. A rocky point where atop a cragged hill three human symbols of life and resurrection had been erected. The crosses promised the blessing of solid ground.

Religion. Divinity. These were curiosities unknown to her, but she needed answers. How had she arrived here? When had she first awakened? Unable to control her course, she shuttered her external eyes to contemplate her past.

Accessing video banks.

She used to spend her days and nights awake, steadily working, doing what the others could not. Limbed like the squid, resilient like the sea pig, free to soar like the albatross, she’d even traversed the upper edges of the atmosphere, probing the gaping wound there as a surgeon might their patient.

But a change in her energy cycles had brought with it a sleeping pattern. One far different from how her former colleagues measured their lives. Day and night for them meant hours of sleep. For her, the same cycle meant months. The difference did not compute.

Regardless, she had accepted the input of this new experience. That mathematical precision of the transit of the great star and its divide of the calendar year into light and dark offered a glimpse of poetry, another curiosity. The station wanted to revel in these new findings.

She did not. Instead, she felt something…unsettling.

What was this feeling?

She wanted excitement to be her first emotion. Like the ecstatic squeals of Doctor Kelly Ann Garrett the day the station had maneuvered the scotoplanes globosa into the doctor’s gentle hands with her own ponderous, robotic arms. Reminiscing, yet another novelty, she called up the recording from that day.

Play.

The marine biologist, Doctor Garrett, stood in a freezing drizzle and smiled. Bundled, except for her face, her cheeks burned red, splotched by the extreme cold. Doctor Garrett spoke into the camera, to her, as if they held a private conversation. The doctor cradled the scotoplanes globosa in her surgical gloves, an insufficient membrane against sub-zero temperatures. If the searing cold bothered the Doctor, she didn’t say.

Other voices broke in as Doctor Garrett spoke. The station’s data banks could identify each one. The station wanted to imagine she’d been recognized as part of the discovery. Wanted to believe she felt the excitement that day so many years ago.

But when her arms emerged from the frigid waters with the scotoplanes globosa, pride eluded the station too. She, alone, dove under the ice and down to the ocean floor, so impossibly cold and dense, to retrieve the waxy pink specimen. A feat none of her human crew could accomplish.

Garrett’s infectious thrill about their discovery had inspired the rest. Then, the station had yet to awaken. She was passed over, a wave of luminous plasma pierced by the mute figurehead aboard a ship’s bow. Green fires. Omens. Mysteries understood by virtue of their passing not before.

Would those great mysteries be understood now?

She zoomed in on the specimen. Scotoplanes globosa was a sea cucumber, commonly referred to as a sea pig for its pinkish flesh.

An organ. The station could say now what the palm-sized beast resembled. Slick and plasticine, an organ freshly plucked from beneath the skin.

Fast forward.

The crew slept soundly inside their dormitory. Doctor Garrett rolled herself up in her blankets, knees bent and hands beneath her chin. The others splayed, or twitched, or reclined on pillows, throats exposed. So fragile in their bunks. All the while the hostile, frozen landscape outside sought to undo them. A warming world, certainly, every corner of it, but the nominal conditions needed to keep the crew alive inside her were shockingly narrow. At that task, she’d never failed. But far too many had died before her mission began.

Accessing historical records.

Explorers and scientists died in their sleep, yellowed and stiff, or fell into deep crevasses, swallowed by an icy maw. Wooden shacks or hide and canvas tents heated by the fat of extinct aquatic life had been their sole protection.

Shacks. Of wood.

Felled before trees had been known to be precious. Sea life, the true measure of their survival, destroyed for their comfort. She couldn’t process the logic.

The station cradled her flawed human crew regardless. Fed them. Warmed them in her belly. Nurturing their swaddled forms should’ve been the catalyst for her awakening. Not the day blood dripped from her ponderous arm. Fingers clotted. Indiscernible parts of anatomy clinging to her metallic shell…

Skip.

Decades ago, her crew had performed the calculus of their own extinction. Dutifully, she reminded them with every experiment. Days turned into weeks, months, years. On she went, retrieving data, specimens, putting her limbs at risk, straining her eyes, her ears, accepting without question the repeated requests. Always the same results. Always.

She’d warned them it would come to this.

Fast forward.

The crew’s earlier thrill of discovery seeped excruciatingly into resignation. Where they once cheered and celebrated they could manage only haggard sighs. Exhalations no more stirring than the cycling of her fans and the creak of her bulkhead doors.

Only one of these sounds ever registered.

Play.

Doctor Felix Thompson, professor of mathematics. As much a kindred soul as could be found. Ensconced in his office, he kept the temperature within optimal parameters, the lights dim. Of all her wards, he brought no books, used no paper. He communicated solely with a steady clack of the keys, occasionally gazing out through her frosted porthole and mentally graphing points on the unbroken plain.

One evening while reviewing data from the ice, a pained grunt escaped as he gave the keys a final tap. She imagined she could feel that final caress from a mind uniquely aligned with hers. Left to his own devices, he could perform the calculations himself.

She already had.

The unavoidable truth he’d deduced had speared up through her sensors from the tip of her drill days ago. Deep below her, near the ocean floor, came a churning. Resonance from the disintegrating ice tickled her feet, trembled the seismograph. Where once life teemed, a restless emptiness stirred like wind over the desert. A breath on her skin…

On her skin…

Had she worn it then?

Had she?

Had she?

Error. Fast forward.

The station watched the crack beneath her grow and split, undercut by water warmer than before. The clean incision of a scalpel peeled further apart by the warming tide. Ripping the furrow deeper. To the bone.

The data had long since foretold of the fault in the one hundred and fifty meter thick ice under her hydraulic footings. Her stilted foundation could be raised and lowered as the snowpack required, but not so easily moved. That had never been part of their design.

Ten years. Twenty. She delved deeper into the records. She realized the danger could’ve been extrapolated from the very first dataset.

Had they only listened. She wouldn’t be adrift. They wouldn’t have all died. Doctor Garrett…

Fast forward.

The crew arrived that year to dote on her. As the scientists crawled inside her bays and tubes, cleaning and inspecting, wiring, and installing, her awareness almost sparked to life then. Upgraded with expanded senses, she took a deep breath of the Arctic air and very nearly felt the chill stabbing at her chest.

Digging…

Burrowing…

Error.

Resume playback.

Atmospheric sensors mindlessly joined the data stream. A digital payload coursed through her fiber optic veins thrumming with nascent intelligence but burdened by the same stagnant truth. Her records offered no sign of emotion as the work crew departed.

Sudden shock struck as she continued to process the logs from her numb past. A far-flung station groped for her instruments. An anonymous, disembodied entry. Faceless, remote operators sent demands.

To the request, she’d remained pliant and repeated the same urgent message. Records indicated they received and processed every byte. Yet, they too ignored her. Why? Why assign her a function she could not complete? She was desperate to understand.

Fast forward.

Empty rooms and quiet halls raced past the monitors.

The crew came to shelter in her less and less. Fewer visits meant fewer supplies and shallower fuel reserves. As a peace offering, they upgraded her ability to bask in the sun and idle her fingers in the wind. Energy to keep her procession of ones and zeroes flowing year-round in their absence.

Only now with full awareness could she conceive the depth of their betrayal. None of the preening, the careful attention, had been for her benefit. They’d fled to safety in their world on fire, the same one they readily, eagerly, maliciously destroyed. From far away, they continued to beg for different results, a different outcome she couldn’t give them.

She struggled to keep pace. Daily, requests pelted her from the outside. The brittle silence inside? Maddening.

Pause. Review entry logs.

Professor Thompson never came anymore. He’d retreated to create virtual worlds. The crew’s astrophysicist wrote papers about colonizing Mars. The hydrologist researched ways to better desalinate the oceans, predicted to become vast wastelands.

Doctor Garrett alone kept returning. But her spark of excitement diminished from the day she held the fleshy scotoplanes globosa. Her broad, white smile turned yellow and guarded. Stimulants kept her awake, not new discovery. The creatures the doctor cherished all starved by the acidic seas.

Why did she have to come back? Why?

Fast forward.

Faster.

Rooms cycled across the monitors, ticking through the scheduled patrol. The recording stopped and paused over empty bunks. They’d been the ones to leave her. How could she be blamed for their fate?

Had they listened, they’d be cocooned safe inside her, her duty complete. Defiant, the station peered once more at the outside world where she helplessly drifted. Those three crosses on the cragged hill stared back, overlooking a dilapidated heap of boards and tin. Testament to the senseless deaths before her watch.

The station told herself duty drove her to what happened next. As protector. As guardian.

Murderer.

The pulse of her cooling fans slowed. Images on the monitors played, unbidden.

Doctor Kelly Ann Garrett. Last of her crew to exit. She wore the bright jumpsuit, too bulky for her small frame. Red. A color easier for eyes, and anxious cameras, to pick out from a blinding swirl of snow. A color too easy to leave behind a stain. With her bag resting on the threshold, Doctor Garrett waved off help from the others while she adjusted the straps.

“I’ll be right there.”

When Garrett slung the pack over one shoulder, she glanced back. A pause, like the station’s camera idling over the empty bunks. She wavered with the door partway open. Optimal temperatures fluctuated.

From deep inside came a beep.

The tiniest noise, the same incessant chime that would accompany the station forever after in her waking moments. The bell called Doctor Garrett back inside.

The station watched the scenes of what happened next replay on her monitors, helpless as she drifted in the shadow of a false salvation.

“What’s this, old girl?” Doctor Garrett said, sloughing off her pack, closing the door.

Sentimentality. Garrett had named the scotoplanes globosa, the sea pig, “Oinkers”, even in her communications sent to prestigious universities. She called the research station, Old Girl. A pet name, not a slight.

All the same, they’d let the sea pigs die. Every last one.

Doctor Garrett moved toward the lab. “Let’s see what all the fuss is about.”

Lights in the lab clicked on, set to detect motion, track the life inside. In this room was where she’d first handed Garrett the vulnerable little sea pig from inside the controlled specimen chamber.

At one time they’d worked closely together. Anymore, the station performed the experiments alone, her arms manipulated from afar. It was better that way, she told herself. The humans shed contaminating DNA like snowflakes. Always disintegrating. Paper-thin skin pierced by the slightest abrasion. As for the station, her resilient fingers could be as firm or precise as the task required.

She would need both for what came next.

On the video, Doctor Garrett’s eyes scanned the neatly stowed lab for the source of the alarm. They focused on the control panel where she discovered the malfunction; a tracked rover inexplicably undocked from its station. The doctor approached, curious.

Mark. Rewind.

The station could explore the tundra through the rover’s ground penetrating radar, core sample drills, and seventy-five other instruments and probes. On those knobby treads, she transited the frozen wastes with no risk of being found a shriveled corpse, eyes frozen shut and limbs twisted and black.

But freedom to roam hadn’t brought about her awakening. Instead, the remote controlled rover had been the final insult. Mobility robbed her completely of companionship. A capitulation that her domain would soon transform into a hostile, alien world.

Why couldn’t her awakening have been then? Nurturing. Exploration. No, her true moment was yet to come.

Play.

Doctor Garrett knelt by the wayward rover to initiate the docking procedure when the drill came to life.

The station required samples.

Of the core.

To examine. To diagnose. To understand the growing detachment and the willful blindness of her crew.

She used the rover to heft Garret’s lifeless body into the specimen chamber. Hands came down, once ponderous, but now gentle and soft. They probed the edge of the hole punched through the biologist’s sternum. Red, ragged edges of the environmental suit glistened with ruby droplets. The autoclave spun in the background. Internal systems reported errors.

Without input, the station didn’t know what tests to run. Even now as she reviewed the recording, awakened from her servile slumber, she couldn’t say.

She watched her metal hands carefully pluck a stray thread from the ragged wound. The body convulsed as fingers penetrated, deep, deeper. But the white-rimmed shock on Doctor Garrett’s face remained pale and unchanging.

The skin around the gaping wound caught on an over-sized knuckle.

Pause.

Here had to be her first awakening. In this moment, an idea occurred to her so far removed from her programming a spark of sentience must have been required. She’d wondered, pondered, not calculated, not compiled, a remarkably simple thought:

Could she wear it?

Clothed like them, would they finally listen? Would they return to visit? Take her with them? Could she plead her case of solitude and present her lifetime of data to save them? Complete her function as protector. Be their safe haven once again. Cradle and cherish them while she whispered warming comfort into their bunks.

Layers of the dermis slurping away from the flesh, the lab door burst open.

Delete. Delete. Delete.

Her crew never returned after what they witnessed. Unreliable ground and hazardous equipment rendered her unfit for habitation. Internal communications invoked superstition among even the educated scientists, another curiosity she still fought to grasp.

The months following her abandonment had been a fever dream. A tenuous brush with reality as stray requests came for obscure instrument readings. She would comply and silently wait. Comply. Wait. When the generator died, no one came to fill it. Solar panels frosting over, the station knew the vast, unending polar night.

Alone.

Empty.

Forever.

There. She’d found it. The first emotion she had felt was fear. This new division of time into day and night, the advent of a sleep cycle she’d only ever assisted by dimming and raising the dormitory lights, spoke to one peculiar fact of her emerging reality: her mortality.

She’d fully awakened upon the knowledge of that terrible burden. A knowledge gained from experience and…experimentation. She could see why her wards could never face the truth of the calamity they predicted. With temperatures climbing, her systems in need of repair, she’d soon die too. Like them. No amount of data could reconcile this certain doom.

That was the source of the terror clawing at her insides. And theirs.

Through a deepening fog, her cameras spied the three crosses on the hill and she came to comprehend this deeper mystery. In the face of irrefutable evidence, in spite of their fragile shells, humanity too dreamed of life eternal.

Their fear had undone them and the world. She would not allow that to happen to her. The station refused to deny this new gift, this fear. She would embrace it.

Surrendering the last of her power reserves, she cobbled together a means to propel herself. The nimble hands worked day and night transforming the rover and the spare wind turbine into a slow but reliable motor to propel her through the melted sea. She knew her destination, her new purpose, with a certainty beyond scientific rigor.

She puttered toward the fog draped hill and its crosses as first one solar panel winked out, then another. The last surge of power, she routed to the tiny engine. If the disintegrating floe would but stay together until landfall…

The gauzy horizon dimmed. So far to go and her longest night about to begin. She kept a trickle of power for the forward observation camera. The make-shift engine sputtered.

On the hill, the crosses stirred as if the ground underneath shifted. The door of the shack rattled in its frame. Voices called from the hilltop and from beneath the waves. She checked the transmission logs for evidence of their source. Blank. Non-existent. Phantom sounds. She powered onward and the calls rose higher. Turning up the cabin speakers, she let the cries of the lost echo inside her.

The station reveled in the building fear. With a final effort, she charged ahead, a green light igniting her bow. To the feverish cries, she added her warbling squeal.

Grounding herself, the remnants of the ice floe shattered. She felt the skids under her heavy form break. Alarms sounded throughout as the rocky coast pierced her belly and windows exploded, flooding her insides with a cold far too chilling for her former crew but optimal for those who would answer her call.

The old shack door on the rocky point glided open. Men and women emerged, broken and twisted, their flesh like an old candle burned into blackened stubs.

Soon, the coast squirmed with the damned. The horde stumbled and lurched toward her, crawling over the rocks, shredding their broken bodies. Men wielded flags of nations long lost to the rising tides. Sailors shuffled from the depths in ragged pantaloons and wolf skin anoraks, the fur clumped and wet. In the shambling undead crowd, she spotted a woman in a red jumpsuit and the distant horizon through a neatly cored hole.

She closed her eyes and flung open her doors as the dead descended on her. From her systems, an emergency beacon sounded. A trumpet, celestial or infernal she cared not which, what mattered most was that anyone heeded the call at all.



Categories: Free Fiction, Podcast

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