This story is part of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure’s First Ever Short Story Contest.
o here I am with this strange creature, in this cave, and what can I do, shrug her off? She helped me out against a Dog. The Dogs are still functional, but lost and confused. No, make that: they’re functional, but short-circuited and for those of us who have stayed behind, it becomes our main occupation, it seems, to trick them or to disable them somehow. Well, our main occupation apart from organizing food and sometimes a place to sleep if you’re physically inclined to do that, but there are not many of us left around these parts now. I guess many made it into shelters. Most probably died. The Dogs take care of those. But this – woman? – she hasn’t talked much, but I assume she also has a reason for staying.
I was dodging Dogs. I was in a store with no roof, between the aisles, and the Dog was hovering just above the shelves, which were mostly raided or smashed up. I could see the Dog’s little red drone eye zoom in and out of focus. The warm parts of me would register with it. I hid in the freezers, which were beginning to thaw but were still cold enough to hide me from at least its temperature sensors. The Dog descended and landed with that sucking sound, right in front of the freezer I stood in. It scanned me. It reached out its tentacle and opened the door when this woman took the the thing out with a clean shot. She was on it in a split second, and I could see her yank out its main board.
She opened the freezer door and pointed her gun at me. She was dressed in some sort of armor suit. All I could see were her eyes.
“Weapons?” she asked.
“None to shoot with,” I replied which was sort of the truth.
“Human?” she asked.
She let go of the door and put her gun away. Right answer.
“I know where we can go. If you’re looking for a place. It’ll be dark before you know it,” she said.
Now we’re in the opening of this cave and are safe for the moment. It’s becoming ridiculous to leave full gear on. She’s built a fire and put a can of beans in it to warm it up. She has all kinds of stuff in her backpack. Weapons. I didn’t manage to snatch anything when the attack sirens went off days ago. I’m unarmed. She has tasers. She has things that can disrupt circuits. She can disrupt circuits. I saw her do it to the Dog. She reached her hand right in the cracks in its titanium shell and tore out the processor. Better not take chances. I doubt there’s anyone around who could fix me. I doubt there’s anyone around.
“What were you doing in the supermarket?” she asks and takes the can of beans out of the fire.
“Hiding from the Dog,” I reply. She has taken her helmet off. She has short fluffy blond hair. It’s hard to look at her face. Unenhanced eyes are kind of gross. Like squishy balls. Hers are especially large. Not that I’ve seen that many this close. “I was looking for some food when I heard it.”
“What are you still doing here?” she asks. I can see the gun sticking out of her waistband.
“I was looking for someone.”
She stares at me for a moment.
“Food?” she asks me, offering some.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “My name’s Ez.”
Maybe if she knows my name it won’t be as easy for her to kill me because I lied.
“Laurie,” she says. “Well? Food? I have enough for now. You can have some.”
“I would love some,” I say.
“Well, here it is!” She’s getting impatient.
I take a breath in. I reach back and slowly undo the latch in the nape of my neck.
“Air’s ok to breathe!” she mocks me and demonstrates by taking a deep breath in and out.
“Thanks for helping me out earlier,” I say.
Maybe if she knows my name and I thank her she won’t kill me.
“You’re welcome. Like, we’re the only people here. There’s even enough food. So, why wouldn’t I, right?”
“I’m unarmed,” I repeat “And I’m sorry I lied to you earlier.”
I pull the helmet from my head. She stops breathing. That’s her reaction. Then she lets out a sharp puff of air, looks away, but still holds out the can of beans into my direction.
“I guess the rules are not in effect here anyway,” she mumbles. And doesn’t shoot me.
“Who were you looking for?” she asks me, sitting down on the sandy ground, still staring ahead.
“Someone I am supposed to look after,” I reply. Way too long a story. “What were you doing?” I try to ask very carefully, but apart from her refusal to look into my direction, she seems to have digested it well. She doesn’t appear to have a hard time overlooking the former rules and the former differences, that are – she is right – not in effect right now, with nobody there to enforce them. At least the two of us, despite all differences, are dependent on the same things: air, water, food, sleep, not catching infections.
She reaches into her backpack and lifts out a handful of micro chips, then drops them back in. “I was making a living.” She still stares ahead. “These sell well.”
“You’re a raider…” I thought they were a rumor.
“I have guns,” she says, neutrally, not threatening at all. “I know how you work. I know which connections to sever. If you, in any way, become a threat to me, I’ll dismantle you and sell your parts and leave your poor pink human guts to rot in the poisonous sun.”
I get a surge of sadness. It’s a deep feeling. One that originates somewhere in my poor pink human guts and grasps my heart.
“I won’t tell on you. I wouldn’t know who to tell,” I say.
“Sit down already! You’re driving me crazy standing there!”
I guess she does watch me from her peripheral vision, if she has that. Maybe it’s as hard for her to look at me as it is for me to look at her. Odd that it should go both ways.
I sit down about three feet away from her. She winces.
“You have friends?” she asks, suspiciously.
“Yes! Yes, of course.”
“I didn’t know that about you.”
If I told her now that the person I stayed behind for was a human, that’d push her over the edge. It’s too confusing even for me. Those feelings. So I don’t say anything. I start eating the beans. I really have been starving.
“Thanks for the food,” I say to her.
It’s mostly dark. The fire makes a quaint glow. It’s warm. It’s a good place to spend the night. It were, if I weren’t about to spend it with a human. She’s been going through the things in her backpack. Laying them out in front of her, arranging them, turning them. Sometimes she mumbled something or let out a little laugh, finally packed everything up, meticulously.
She has not dared to look at me again. I have lain down in the sand.
We won’t sleep. We don’t trust each other.
“Hey Ez ” she says, after shuffling about a little.
“What kind are you?” she asks and sounds so shy inside her armor suit, with the guns all over the place.
“That’s a really personal question,” I reply.
“Really? Why?” she asks on.
“Hey Laurie, how did your parents die?” I ask back, to demonstrate the personal nature of the question she asked me. She’s fast for a human. She throws a handful of sand into my face. It gets into my eyes. I release them and try to clean them.
“Holy crap! Put them back!” she screeches. I’m absolutely unprepared for that reaction. She scares me a little bit.
“I’m sorry, but you made them sandy,” I explain to her. “Hand me that canteen?” She kicks it into my general direction, with her back to me. I pour a splash on my eyes, one by one, then put them back.
“It’s ok. They’re in again,” I say quietly. Humans are more outrageous than I thought. Or maybe just she is. There is absolute silence for about an hour.
“Hey Ez,” she says, “my parents died in a bombing. I was cut out of my dead mother’s belly. By a human. Humans trawl the wards after bombings to do just that, to get their numbers up. There you go. Shit happens.”
“Don’t throw sand now,” I say quietly. “Were your parents Enhanced?”
She tosses a handful of sand into my direction, but it’s a joke. She has a cute sense of humor.
“Yes,” she says between clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s ok. I’m not into the pro human movement, you know. People know it was bad luck that I am one. But I get along.”
It’s my turn now.
“I’m an EAL,” I tell her. “Eyes, arms, legs.”
“I know what an EAL is!” she hisses. “One of your feet could keep me alive for a month!”
I’m not brain enhanced, but my reaction time has been trained well. My reaction takes me into standing position and out of the cave onto the little plateau, overlooking the cremated remains of the bombed out Area below. I pump air into my lungs. I can’t stay here with that crazy, bitter human.
“Hey Ez,” she says, suddenly right next to me on the edge of the plateau. She’s moved so quietly. Maybe I envy her that. “Don’t worry. I have enough to sell for this time around. I won’t disconnect your feet.”
I lean against the rock and try to calm my breathing.
“Are you crying?” she asks. Suddenly, she is right in front of me, looking at me full on, with her big unenhanced eyes. Curiosity must have beaten her disgust. “Sucks to be emotional, huh? Sometimes wish you were an ESH instead of an EAL?” Emotions, senses, heart. Yes.
“I’m thankful for what I am. Emotions are important to what I do. Used to do.”
“What do you do?”
“I was a Racer. If you don’t emote joy, disappointment, or pain, you don’t sell well.”
“I used to like watching the races. So I guess you’re unemployed now,” she says slowly. “You must be a fine piece of machinery.”
She did it again. Little stabs.
“I am not,” I explain to her as patiently as I can, “a piece of machinery. Like you’re not a lump of meat.”
“Whatever,” she says, and walks back into the cave. She sits down with her back to the wall and puts another dry twig into the fire.
I join her and sit down opposite her, my back to the other cave wall.
“You’re kind of disgusting,” she says, and stares at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and cover my eyes.
“Not you as a machine. You as this emotional, sensitive being with all those disgusting condescending pretend-ethics. I’m not a lump of meat to you? Are you kidding me? I am nothing more than that to you and the only thing that makes you not see me as your absolute subordinate is the fact that I have guns and access to black markets that would gladly take a part of you.”
“You know nothing about me. Or us, if you insist on generalizing.”
I don’t know where to go, but any place seems better than this cave. So I get up again and decide to go find another sleeping place, although this has been cozy and safe – except for maybe the human.
“Laurie, thanks for the food. I’d better go.”
“And where are you gonna go?”
“Elsewhere. You’re scary.” I walk out of the cave and down the rocky path that leads up to the plateau from the scorched Area.
“What if a Dog spots you? What are you gonna do then?” she shouts after me. “Run?”
She turns into a little spot of light bobbing down the hill after me. Poor thing. Can’t see in the dark.
“At least take a gun!” she shouts, and tries to pull one out of her bag with the hand that’s not holding the flashlight. She takes a gun by the barrel and holds it out to me. She is so confusing.
“Aren’t you scared, giving me that?” I ask.
“Of you? There’s no way you could ever pull that thing’s trigger on me. You started crying when I talked about your black market value. You’re raiding a Dog-infested Area for food. You have no equipment other than your Suit on you. You’ve lost someone you were supposed to look after. You’re so not ready for this.”
“I never knew her!” I say back, but it comes out like a cough, something I couldn’t have suppressed.
I don’t move. Neither does she. She holds out the gun halfway between us.
“This is heavy,” she points out after a few seconds.
So I take the gun. Its weight seems to pull me down.
Then my heart stutters, because she takes my hand. She has reached out and is now touching my hand. The left one that’s not holding the gun. Her hand is touching mine. There’s nothing between our hands. I get hot, then very fast very cold. I get dizzy. My optical units produce little sparks in front of my eyes.
“Come on, I’ll show you how to shoot it,” she says and pulls me back up the rocky path by my hand.
I’m not meant to touch an unenhanced hand. It’s revolting, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt before and when we’re back at the entrance to our cave, I couldn’t possibly learn how to shoot a gun. I need to just sit down and breathe.
“Guess I’ve found your weak spot, O mighty machine!” she mocks. “Want me to poke you some more?”
“No, please, no.”
I feel sick.
“Poke!” she says, but doesn’t actually touch me, although just that word has made me jump.
“Why can you touch me just like that and I’m like this?”
She squats on her haunches next to me. She looks at me and there’s something on her forehead, between her eyebrows. Something her skin does. Like little creases.
“Do your kind need sleep?” she asks and there’s something in her voice that reminds me of childhood.
“Yes,” I say.
“Every few days.”
“Do you need sleep right now?”
“Is that why you’re behaving funny?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can tell you why I can touch you and then you can sleep and I’ll watch out for you.”
There are a few stars out now. It’s cool out here.
“I have raided EALs before. Dead ones. You’re the easiest and fastest to dismantle. You feel a little different when you’re alive, though.”
I am very tired. I can’t take anymore.
“And now I am supposed to trust you?”
“Yes, because I’m not a killer. I just take stuff that’s lying around.”
“But, Laurie, that’s exactly what I would be if I were to sleep. Stuff lying around. If I’m just a machine to you, I’d just be stuff lying around.”
Then I have an idea. Maybe now I’ve reacted too quickly and too close to her. She has pulled the gun on me almost the same instant I have grabbed her wrist – not touching skin, just sleeve. For a minute, we’re frozen. My right hand around her left wrist, her right hand pointing the gun at me. Then she starts panting.
“What are you doing? I’m going to shoot, I really am!” she says and sounds more irrational than I’ve ever heard her, and I’m afraid she’s actually going to shoot. So I act fast. I unhook my chest cover and put her hand on my heart. I hope I haven’t hurt her. I have no idea how much or how little it takes to hurt an unenhanced wrist. It’s pounding, my heart.
“There!” I tell her. “It’s not any different! That’s still the basic version. Just like yours. It’s racing because you creep me out, and it will stop one day, just like yours.”
She twists and struggles and tries to pull her hand away. I keep it there for just another few seconds, then let go. She stumbles backwards and falls into the sand, thrown off balance. She starts shaking her hand then wiping it on her pants frantically. I leave her to whatever little cleaning ritual she thinks she is accomplishing, and go back into the cave. The fire from earlier is still glowing. I curl up to keep warm and arrive immediately in that zone just before the unconsciousness of sleep.
* * * * *
Frauke Uhlenbruch, aka the Small Fish, lives (and works) in England (among others). Her current research interests include the writings of Dr Seamus Hurley, the resurrection of the dead, utopian social description, superhero comics, and remarkable modes of divine-human communication. Things that make her toenails curl up include people bumping into her backpack on a crowded subway train. Great music, road trips, and dancing on tiptoe on the other hand, warm her heart. Sometimes she gets bored with the contemporary world.
Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.