Ghost in the Machine
Copyright © 2011 Barbara J. Hancock
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
There’s a cough in my throat.
It started with a menacing tickle. No matter how shallow you learn to breathe, the ash finds its way inside. I try not to imagine it, dark and dusty, coating my esophagus. I fail. It’s there. It’s always there. Black lung would kill us all if the SoulEater didn’t take us first.
One soft footfall after another will take me home to the relative safety of the warren. If I don’t cough. If I somehow swallow the explosive noise that will cause the Shadow on the playground swing to turn its empty eyes to see me.
I reckon her to be about six years old when she fell. Her tiny legs don’t quite reach the ground as she sways gently back and forth, back and forth. The chain squeaks as it moves only a little more than the others on the abandoned playground that are stirred by the breeze. I hear the echoes of laughter in the soot-tainted air. But that’s my imagination. At twenty, I’ve never seen this playground alive and happy. My world has always been a dark one.
I can’t swallow. I can hardly breathe. The cough in my throat has become a huge constricting ball of discomfort bordering on pain. Sweat breaks out on my brow and trickles into my eyes. I blink it away because I need to be able to see if the Shadow turns my way.
Like ghosts that haunt a dying world, Shadows track our movements for the SoulEater. But they are easily distracted by their former life. It will swing for hours, for days, for months if nothing attracts its attention. But one cough could turn it to deadly purpose.
Squee—squee, squee—squee, squee—squee.
The sound of the chain pricks my nerves with a thousand rusty needles.
On my back, the pack I carry holds a precious prize. Not just dried beans or a box of moldy rice, but a large dented can with its faded label intact. Peaches. Peaches for my little brother, Douglas. Those peaches give me strength to fight the cough even when my throat is raw from the constant abrasion of ash.
Another step and then another.
Squee—squee, squee—squee, squee—squee.
Now I’m forced to watch the swinging “child” with my peripheral vision. The sudden movement of my head twisting its way could prove disastrous. All night I’ve avoided detection. But my whole body is fatigued. I’ve burnt too many calories climbing and digging and searching when there are always too few consumed.
The cough has climbed beyond discomfort to pain. It burns hotly against the back of my tongue. Black and fatal. If I’m taken, who will help Douglas survive? No one. He’ll be left to waste away. There’s already envy over how well I keep him. His slightly rounded cheeks are so different from mine and everyone else’s. At twelve, he’s gotten old enough to notice. He has begun to insist that I eat too. I remember when he would gulp down every last scrap while my stomach gnawed on itself. How I miss those innocent days. It’s only a matter of time before he’ll want to scavenge too.
I can’t shelter him forever.
The chain still creaks.
I imagine the Shadow’s head jerking in my direction. Its cold eyes tracking my retreat. Gooseflesh rises on my skin, and the hairs on the back of my neck stiffen to attention. I can’t risk a glance to see if my fears are true. I can only continue to walk with slow, careful paces, listening to the sound of the swing.
That sound could be a lie.
It is so soft. Very like its fellows moved by the breeze.
I now imagine the shadow has slid down from its innocent perch to follow me. I imagine its icy fingers reaching for my skin.
And then I’m around the corner.
I press my back to the brick wall of the building and carefully look back the way I came, using its edge as cover. I don’t know if I’ll come face to face with the Shadow, but I have to know if I’ve been detected. I won’t lead the SoulEater to our refuge. Not to Douglas. Never.
Heart pounding. Cough threatening. Fight or flight pending. I look back. And I see the Shadow on its swing. Going through the phantom movements of its former life. It isn’t a ghost, of course. It’s nothing but a program designed to be the SoulEater’s eyes in a world gone mad.
I live in a city populated by waifs and Shadows. Warmbloods like Douglas and myself are by far the minority now. For a moment, I see the ghost of Douglas on the swing beside the Shadow. He looks right at me with hollow eyes.
And that’s when I hear the distant grinding of Sweeper treads.
I no longer need to cough. Every impulse in my entire body is routed to the energy it takes to propel my feet. I abandon silence to call my brother’s name. The warren is several blocks away. I know Shadows detect me as I run full tilt, arms pumping, dust churning. There’s a dark swirl of movement in my wake as hundreds of soulless eyes turn to track me.
It doesn’t matter.
Nothing matters but getting to Douglas before the Sweepers.
I don’t, of course.
There’s no way I could.
Once they find us, they’re fast and unrelenting. Unlike the Shadows, the Sweepers are part machine. They’re never distracted, never glitchy. Made of cobbled-together bits, there’s nothing human left in them to feel or fear or remember. Blood and bone and flesh fused with wires and cogs and pistons, the Sweepers tirelessly provide fuel for the SoulEater’s fire. Us. The Warmbloods Shadows spot and the Sweepers capture are doomed to be drained—downloaded into the SoulEater’s system, then used for parts or burned for fuel.
There’s no escape.
I fall to my knees when I reach the empty warren. The prized can of peaches makes a dull thump against my back.
Too little, too late.
Douglas is gone.
Our neighbors are gone too. Nervous folk I barely knew. One of them hadn’t been nervous enough. Someone was seen and followed.
The warren isn’t destroyed. A few walls tilt. One roof is caved in. It could be easily rebuilt. There’s plenty of refuse for the building. Old magazines and newspapers, boxes and bottles and miscellaneous junk from the world that was. We can no longer trust the homes and houses that used to shelter mankind. They are Shadow-filled and useless to us. But now that this warren has been discovered it won’t be safe either.
I’m supposed to trudge away because the Sweepers will return. They’ll mine this warren regularly now that it’s been found. I should be terrified of the approaching Shadows. Who knows how many saw me running without care or caution?
But I can’t move.
A paroxysm of coughs claims me, and I go with it until blood from my lungs mixes with tears on my lips.
When Douglas was five, my mother left to forage and never returned. I’ve been the one in charge ever since. Douglas gives me reason to survive in a world where nothing but survival matters. I wouldn’t have done it for myself alone, but like a Sweeper, I’ve become a machine crafted of flesh and bone. Like those monsters, I have single-minded purpose. Take care of my brother. Every lean muscle that ripples beneath my skin, every hard-won experience that lives in my brain, every survival instinct honed for one single goal—keep Douglas safe.
I can’t accept failure.
I won’t accept it.
I rise and center my pack between my shoulder blades. The precious can of peaches is my promise. One day Douglas will eat them. One day he’ll enjoy every juicy bite. I won’t give in to my hunger. Not for one single slice.
I don’t look back at the warren as I walk away. Beneath my feet are Sweeper tracks in the ash. Shadows are coming. I feel their threat closing in. Logic says I should run in the opposite direction and avoid them at all cost. My heart and soul say otherwise. And until those things are lost or eaten, I’ll follow them.
The spider attacks close to midnight.
I shouldn’t travel at night. Even in our sunless city, the gray dawn is our friend. Shadows own the night, slinking from dark corners when we don’t expect them. I’ve felt them following me, tracking me, but I have no time to hide.
Douglas has no time.
Shadows are remnants of their human selves and many of them still look human, but others…don’t. Anything is possible and I’ve seen it all. Olympic runners coming back with a man’s body and a horse’s legs. Soldiers coming back with M-16 arms. The spider has eight giant legs and a human face covered in hundreds of tiny black eyes.
I can’t outrun it, so I fight, all the while knowing the Shadow will relay everything about me and my location to its master.
The spider has the advantage. Surprise, right? It has me down and pressed into decades’ worth of ash on the street. The Fallen. Their dust clings to my clothes and skin and hair as if they try to claim me, as if my fight is pointless before it even began.
I won’t give up. I reject the ash’s call and strain every muscle against the monster above me. Venom drips from its fangs to sizzle coldly on my cheeks. I know it will be fatal if it’s injected into my veins even if it only paralyzes me long enough for the Sweepers to come and retrieve me.
With one arm, I reach for the signal disruptor on my belt. My position is already compromised. Sending the fiend back to the SoulEater will buy me time. The homemade taser weapon is inches away, but I can’t reach it. The wiry hairs on the spider’s legs rasp on my skin as it grips me closer. Its fangs touch my forehead. In seconds they will penetrate. And still I fight.
A sudden force knocks the spider off my body. It rolls away, end over end, like a crumpled ball of nightmare. I jump to my feet with no grace and stumble toward the creature instead of away. I have the signal disruptor out and pressed to its exoskeleton in a flash anyway, graceful or not. The determination to survive makes up for the lack of coordination every time.
I depress the trigger, and arcs of electricity discharge into its pseudo-flesh. Static flashes and the spider glows before disappearing with a pop that creates a charged vacuum against my skin.
Every hair on my body rises in response, but I don’t have time to shiver. Because across the empty space, I spot my rescuer.
He is tall and lean and beautiful. I’d seen the likes of his angular face on the pages of some of the magazines we use to build our warrens. Or nearly so. His is too perfect to be human. It’s chiseled symmetry more likely to be seen on statuary in a cathedral. The wings probably make me think that way. They shimmer from his back in glossy black arches that mimic the color of his body armor. His eyes also shimmer with a haze of static as they move, tracking my face and form.
He is no man. Nor is he an angelic statue come to life. As I said before, with Shadows, all forms are possible and that shimmer never lies.
Though his movements as he approaches don’t look threatening or automatic, I step to meet him with purpose, my disruptor between us.
But I don’t fire…yet. Even though I’ve seen it all, his appearance and his actions are making my responses uncertain. Such beauty in such a deadly package.
He takes my face in his hands as we stand toe to toe. I have to raise my chin to meet his flickering gaze. His touch is very like the spider’s venom on my skin, cold and electric. But this time the tingles don’t feel deadly. Dangerous? Oh yes. Very, very dangerous. My heart leaps from the jolt as if wakened from hibernation, and I gasp with its sudden thumping. I’m not sure if it is his touch or his eyes that has my pulse racing. Between static flashes, the irises of his eyes match his wings and the night around us.
But in their darkness I see reason and intelligence.
Before that anomaly can stop me, I depress the trigger once more.
This time the power of the pop sends me to my knees where I stay, shaken and trembling by the very different sort of emptiness I’d seen in the angel’s eyes.