One Thing Left
By Paige Duke
Her search was coming to an end. The mad race across galaxies and years had led her to the hold of the prison ship. As she’d known it would. But there would be no fight, no glorious reunion, no happy escape. The scavengers had gotten there first and the place was abandoned, silent but for the useless blaring alarm.
Rowenna picked her way through the wreckage of twisted metal and the snaked coils of exposed conduits. The shapes became monstrous in the sparse light, so that she walked through the lair of some great beast, a graveyard of discarded bones. The thought pierced her, almost slayed her, for what could be left of Janu now but scraps? She should just turn around, there was nothing left for her here. Even if by some miracle she found what remained of him, all trace of his living memory would be gone. That was the Regime’s real punishment, they could strip away flesh and bone, but until the mind was wiped of its humanity, the captives were still free.
One step after another, she moved further into the belly of the ship. The hope that had propelled her all these years was gone, but a new rhythm took its place, words echoing to her from another lifetime. Beside the waterfall of Arnith, as the waters roared around them, she’d whispered a desperate promise. Three words that sealed their fates and redirected the trajectories of their lives. “No matter what,” she’d said, when she was just the Prime Minister’s headstrong daughter and he a lowly servant boy, before she knew what it would mean.
The floor whined beneath her and the ship’s bones creaked with every breath of solar wind. She came to a half-open bay door and forced her way in. When she stepped through, she saw it was the hold. And then she saw the bodies. The floor was littered with the shredded limbs of droids, picked clean of all their sellable parts. But where were their skulls? She shuddered. Even criminals deserved a better end than this—this faceless obscurity.
The wan light of the neighboring star filtered through a strip of high windows, enough for Rowenna to find a path through the room. She kept her eyes on the floor, trying her best not to step on any remains. Then out of the shadows rose a mound, but it wasn’t the reflective metal of the droids . . . they were human—the new convicts. They may have escaped Transition, but their deaths were just as senseless. Piled carelessly in a human trash heap. She closed her eyes and tried not to be sick. What kind of world was she living in, where thieves and murderers roamed free while lovers and revolutionaries were condemned, dismembered, Transitioned?
The rage that had festered in her for so long frothed and surged and overflowed its bounds. “Is this your justice?” she shouted, the words reverberating and dying in only a moment. But of course it couldn’t reach her father’s ears, he’d always been deaf to her brand of truth. She shook her head, defeated. What had she hoped to accomplish here? From the first spark of their forbidden love, she and Janu had walked a doomed path. There was no redemption for their kind.
The persistent melody of her words was the only power to move her forward, “no matter what no matter what no matter what.” With every step, she saw deeper into the shadows as the light from the windows grew brighter. Another ten steps brought her to the end of the hold and to the droid’s skulls. She cried out at the sight of them, suspended from the wall like hunter’s trophies. Rowenna pressed the heels of her hands tight against her eyes. Her breath came in ragged gasps. She hardened herself, let herself play into the Regime’s hands, sloughing away the tender layers of her own humanity. How else could she steel herself for this one thing she had left to do?
She opened her eyes again and searched the faces before her one by one.
She found him ringed in a halo of light, mouth frozen in a silent, eternal scream. His Transition was in its last stages; the skin of Janu’s face was the only part of him still human. She closed the distance, every step driving a knife deeper into her chest.
Coming closer, Rowenna saw the scavengers had managed to peel away the thin metal scalp. Underneath, he was all cogs and metal. It was small consolation that the most valuable parts of him were untouched—the spinal graft that held him, all of them, to the hull had protected his holoprojector and his memory sensors. But had his captors already managed to reprogram him?
She reached for him then, hands cupping the cold metal where once his blood had beat hot and fast. Where she had kissed him a thousand times, along every inch of his jawline. Weakening red light winked out at her from where his eyes, the purest green, had once been. He had looked on her with such love. Her cheeks were wet, and her fingers shook as they groped for the chip at the base of his neck. There was a crackling, a gentle shock along her arm, transmitting the data to her own optic nerve. A stream of code. A well of darkness. And then the rushing, pounding of water and three whispered words.
By Dani Nicole
Pierce was only afraid of one thing – the Elite. And they came for him. They found him the way they always find us when they need human organs. They look at us like cattle about to be slaughtered. They want us to believe we are animals. But they are the ones who are animals.
Pierce hid Nadia and me for months. He was the one who would go into town for food and weapons. He was the one who would come up with a believable explanation for the guards. He never let us set foot outside the cave we made our home.
And now without him all I have are the screams that still echo in the cave that keeps them captive. “Anya, Anya,” he wailed, like a coyote in the night. “Anya, Anya.”
Nadia shivers and cries into my chest. I stroke her hair, think of how they grabbed Pierce. I kiss her forehead, think of how they knocked him unconscious. I breathe in the scent of her hair, think of how he’s never coming back.
I ran when they took him, just like I always promised I would. But I didn’t run for me. I ran for Nadia. And we ran for two days until we found another cave. This one is damper and smells like mold. There’s a small stream nearby that provides enough water to live on. And although the sound of rushing water is soothing I cannot stop the constant mantra of fear running through my mind. They will come for us. They will find us. They will kill us.
When I fall asleep I can see the Elite ripping Pierce apart in my dreams. When I’m awake I can still hear what the Elite said when they took him. “The Elite shall never die. The Elite shall never decay. You are on this Earth to serve us. You give us the gift of life, and in return we give you shelter, water and food. We give you community.”
I can still hear the other guards recite, “This is the way it is. This is the way it always will be.”
Before my stomach can even start turning at the memory I hear a snap outside, the sound of a branch breaking beneath a boot. A heavy, Elite boot.
“Nadia, come here.” I whisper.
She comes to me, clings to me. I lean into her ear, so close. “You run, okay. You run if they take me.”
Tears pool in her eyes but she nods slowly.
“It’s cat and mouse,” a voice says outside the cave. “We wait and she will come.”
I freeze. That deep, grainy voice–I could never forget it.
Nadia tugs on what’s left of my dress. “Anya. What is it?”
“Stay here.” I tell her, pulling her arms off of me. “Don’t move until it’s time to run. Okay?”
“Anya what are you going to do?”
“Nadia, promise me you will run.”
She nods again, this time letting a tear fall.
I kiss her on the cheek, then walk towards the man with the familiar voice.
With every step the memory floods back to me. Ten years ago, me, lying on a cold stone table in a barren white building, where the Elite strapped me down.
They held me down and injected me with blue fluid. The burn of freezing liquid ran through my veins until every part of me stopped thrashing. Every limb fell limp.
They started cutting.
From my navel, upwards, towards my ribs. I imagined the sound of tearing flesh, the feeling of trickling blood. But I felt nothing and heard only muffled sounds.
And then a voice.
The Elite who held the scalpel turned as still as me.
And that’s when I saw the boy with black hair and gray eyes, holding a syringe into the Elite’s neck, pressing the blue liquid into the Elite’s veins.
I knew that man would come for Pierce after he rescued me. The one with the deep, grainy voice.
I emerge from the cave and the man looks at me, smiles, throws his cigarette butt onto the ground. “So we meet again, little mouse.”
“Take me to Pierce.”
He points his laser gun at my head. “I thought you’d never ask.”
The Elite has blue eyes like my grandfather. But the bunker is not a place for fond memories of story times and rocking chairs. The ceiling is dripping oil and the walls smell like mold. The only source of light comes from the last room at the end of the hall.
“Your boyfriend is in there,” the Elite says.
I hold my breath against the putrid stench and step into the light. He keeps his gun at my head.
I stop moving like I have freezing liquid in my veins again. But this time Pierce won’t be able to save me, to make my heart start again and make my limbs move. Because Pierce is crumpled on the floor in the corner of the room, and he is barely human. He is barely alive.
Where his strong jaw used to define his face, there is machinery. Metal and wires. His eyes are red lights of injustice. He is not my Pierce, the boy I spent hours with in the cave. He is all that is left of humanity. All that my kind stands for in the end.
And yet he is still beautiful to me. He is still mine, somehow. I place my hands on his face and guide his eyes to mine. I want to find the words to bridge the impossible gap between us. I want to tell him that nothing the Elite could ever do to us would change the way I feel.
But I can’t seem to do anything but cry.
He kisses my forehead with cold steel lips. “Anya,” he says with a mechanical voice. “You promised you would run.”
I stroke his metal cheek, look into his red eyes. “I did run.” I kiss him again. “I ran to the only home I’ve ever wanted.”