Chapter five: Kill switch  

Maru’s law: nothing may circumvent the right to die.


Finally alone, Saaga placed her hand between her legs. She explored with her fingers. Groping at every inch of flesh. Ear lobes, nipples, shoulders, lips. Her own, gentle caresses feeding in vivid detail up her spine. Her eyes glowed softly with relief a background fear lifted from her face. She sniffed her fingers, her armpits, tasted her mouth, nothing, no body odor whatsoever.

Kimba had left her with nothing to clothe her with but the silky nanofiber sheet.

Abandoning it, she hesitantly approached the mirror. A flat image designed so that her brain interpreted it as three dimensional, looked back at her. Peering close at her own face, her chin, where she had had irregularities, scars, blackheads, there was only pearly, perfect, touchable smooth skin, or something very like it. Barely noticeable seams cut through her joints, creating a smooth, regular pattern down over the graceful, slightly idealized curve of her bottom. There had been a scar, not disfiguring but noticeable, which had creased her throat since the age of ten, it was gone. Her fingers lingered at her right eyebrow, passed through the impossibly soft, white blonde hair, and dragged their way down the tight band of her sternocliedomastoid. No scar. No pulse.

The sudden pressure in her chest told her that she had forgotten to breathe.

Staggering, half blind from sudden vertigo she stumbled back to the operating table.

Saaga picked up the sheet and pulled the slippery fabric around her shoulders. She stared into the mirror across the room. A machine stared back.

The blue white light of the surgical lamp threw the reflected image of her body into jagged chiaroscuro. She pulled the blanket tight around her, falling sideways, curling her hands close to her body, tucking her knees up to her chest.

She shut her eyes tight (they did not contort her face in anguish, they simply moved into the inactive position and sealed) and drank in the horror of what she had become.

Something had seized at her soul. Something terrible and horrible and deep and it hurt. In her distress the subroutines that regulated her breathing and ocular lubrication did not initiate crying, so without a hiccough or a sob she blocked out the world with the palms of her hands and listened to the screaming human in her head.

The wound, the never healing wound, the stripping of the flesh and the grinding of the bones, lungs full of blood and nothing between her and the arms of death.

There are wires in my brain.  

The little girl in her head was screaming, pinned her to the sandy floor of a half demolished farmhouse.

They put wires in my brain.

A razor, six inches of cold steel had slid across her windpipe, tearing the skin when she struggled. And again when she came.

They took me and they stopped my heart and they hacked my skull to pieces with the whining, screeching, saw!  

“Hey,” Kimba’s voice came softly to her ear, “Saaga?” he touched her shoulder and she jerked away, hands clutched around her throat, every motion a shuttering hesitation, her breathing was quick and loud and choppy.

And he was inside me and he touched me and he took away everything I had ever known.

Kill switch

“Saaga, “ he whispered sincerely, “can you hear me?”

Kill switch.

She thought she could hear distant gunfire.

Kill switch.

The plane was burning around her, eject, escape, freedom from the claustrophobic shell of mechanics. There were wires in her brain, and whining in her ears and up her spine, and hydraulics in her hips and ball bearings in her gleaming blue eyes.

She was trapped.

She couldn’t feel her legs.

Someone was calling her name in the language of the stars.


One hand released from her throat and reached for Kimba. He took it, and sitting beside her on the worktable in the quiet darkness of his lab, pulled the shaking, broken machinery into his arms.

My body is not my own.

            Kim’s voice floated through to some little bit of her conscious mind, speaking a strange and ancient tongue, “And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’” his hands ran up and down her arms.

            “Go if you want to Saaga,” he caressed her face, “it is our only unbreakable law. Nothing can stop you. Your life is your own.”

She whimpered into him, a sound she thought she had forgotten how to make.

He rocked her slowly, the movement reading hypnotically in her magnetic stabilizers. The soothing bars of an Ethiopian lullaby sung below the threshold of human hearing vibrated the table below them. His fingers passed through her hair.

“You never said it would hurt so much,” Saaga whispered.

“If it’s any consolation,” he rubbed her shoulder, “it doesn’t hurt any more than being human.”

There was no heat between them, and the strappy metallic legs he chose to go about on were not at all comfortable. But what he could offer was touch, kindness and patience. She was dangerously close to the kill switch, and he had grown rather fond of her. He leaned over her body and reached for a nearby cabinet, rather than moving her, he let the sections of his arm telescope the extra foot. He opened a small drawer and retrieved a bright red plastic package.

 In the year 3500 there are approximately ninety three million narcotic chemicals known to science. There are uppers and downers, methamphetamines, lysergic acid diethlamides, cannabinoids, desomorphines, endorphines, pot, khat, crack and robitussin.

Mushrooms for fun hallucinations, mushrooms for deep hallucinations. Exotic kelps from the seas of Aksirani, which did fantastic things in the temporal lobes, pills for getting thinner, pills for getting blonder, or right handed, or smarter, or more socially competent. You could spend a week in a serotonin bath hallucinating about sex parties with underage celebrities.  And nobody would judge you for it.

A cyborg could enjoy any cocktail of neurotransmitters, or dial up the Zed in their systems, for a heightened sensory experience and a feeling of euphoria.  Or, if they were wealthy, and willing to go through the Catalinian, enjoy more natural remedies, grown and bred in vast indoor greenhouses on the Martian plains, far, far away across the Gulf. And anything, any mood stabilizing, appetite suppressing, hallucinatory trip could be enjoyed without fear of addiction, brain damage or overdose, the best high of your life, every single time.

Saaga lay back into Kim’s arms eyes half open, staring into the perfect, silent darkness. The screaming was gone; the fevered, broken hurt had melted out of her, through the floor and into open space. The wires in her brain barely itched.

There were antidepressants, and anticonvulsants, barbiturates, psilocybin, mdma and PCP, there was peyote, and some kind of powder made with bugs, and alcohol, and nicotine and caffeine, and nothing, in the whole expanse of the galaxy and of scientific knowledge, that ever, for a moment, beat heroin.

 She breathed steadily, her O2 valves set to an automatic rhythm. Her interface put on standby while the drug ran its course, any neurological damage would be fixed within hours.   But for now, her hands curled around the little baggie in Kim’s hand. She looked down at the label, it said it was Human made; all opiates were, smuggled in over the Gulf from the distant stars of Sol and Centauri. Poppy fields of Persia, stretching on forever under an alien sun.

“Where’s Earth?” Saaga asked in the deep silence her interface had finally started to reboot.

“Very far away.”

“it‘s beautiful,” she spread the label on the plastic bag, a rolling field of red flowers rose against jagged mountains, the blue sky was broken by minaret’s and a crescent, she couldn’t read the fancy gold calligraphy.

“Doesn’t actually look like that.” Kim said. “At least it didn’t the last time I was there.”

“That’s too bad,” she sighed, “it looks nice.”

“It was, once upon a time,” he found himself absentmindedly touching her hair. It wasn’t a popular feature amongst cyborgs, but he had always found it exotic.

“What happened?”

“hu-X-mau-razu-a-rum.” he pronounced, clicking the x through his lips with a mechanical pop and dragging the last syllables into subsonic notes that Saaga could feel on her chest..

“What language is that?”

“High Golgathan, in vulgar Chalbian, the dialect you are programmed to understand, they are called humans.”

“But I’m human,” it didn’t bother her as much that her memories were slipping away, what had they called themselves?

“No, my dear, you are nothing like them.” his hand froze in thought. “A human is a thing that spreads, that multiplies, and kills, displacing all other life, and feeling no mercy for those they destroy. It is a life form that stopped growing, a fetus, left to gasp and die outside of the womb, an unhatced egg, a soul marred with age and crippled by the fetters of flesh, or so the authorities would have us believe.”

“Mutrrhi.” she muttered.

“In truth, they are where we came from, but not what we are. Many would have you believe that they are incapable of complex emotions, many of us make them into monsters, or troglodytes, mindlessly breeding, fucking, splitting, like bacteria that wipe out planets. But the truth is Saaga, whether we are built of steel, or stone or flesh, inside we’re all still human.” he traced the shell pink ridge of her ear with one finger, she had a brass ring through the earlobe, a decoration he had added to fill the empty holes he had seen on her corpse. Only noticing after the tops of her ears had been cut off by the bone saw. “And know this; they are our oldest, and our most malicious enemy, from whom we have kept the secret of our survival for the last five hundred years. The humans can never know we exist, it would start a galactic war.”

The ship creaked around them.

“I want some more of this.” she pushed the plastic baggie into his hand. “Then tell me more about Earth.” she curled up against his cold body.

“Just this once,” he said, unsealing the package with dark, clever fingers, nine of them. “It’s only for emergencies. You can develop a habit when you can pay for it yourself.”

He filled a clear acrylic delivery pod which fastened into her nostrils.

“Breathe in.”

And then she was being fucked by God.

The hot clear light of Sol beat down on her eyelids, from over and beyond the echoing passages of space and the slinking, churning rivers of time. An ancient longing for that primordial star burned in her brain, “home.” She whispered, feeling Kim’s long fingers lace between her own. 

“Let me tell you the story of Earth.” he began patiently after what might have been hours, speaking, once again, with the flowing, musical syllables of the cybernetic tongue. A language which all could understand, and very few could speak. It was the only way to properly tell stories, according to the ancient oral traditions of their race. “Earth, is a planet which, like so few in the galaxy, was born, dense, and packed with life, a billion varieties, each one, growing in harmony with those around it, living for generation after generation, in the tender embrace of nature.“ images of a wet, green planet filled her mind, trees, taller than the tallest buildings on her world blocking out the electric blue sky with a dense canopy of leaves. “A few of those life forms developed languages, and arts and civilizations, and they called themselves Homo sapiens. Their great experiment worked, too well.”

“They started multiplying, and building, and making, and little by little they stomped out the other life forms, and built great, artificial mechanisms to replace the ways of nature. They used their technologies to move to a nearby planet, where cyborgs, not just like us, but very similar, gradually turned the barren red desert into fields of grain and seas of fresh water. And one thousand years ago, that was where I was born.”

Saaga shifted her weight, her interface was going offline again, but this time she told herself to listen, to hold on to the sounds that her body made, the sweet, and woven phonemes borrowed from the rumbling music of the stars and the ancient tongues of Earth.

“Suzuki Maru, I don’t know if you remember me telling you about him before. He became very wealthy after he wrote the program behind the Cherub drones. His company was called Mar-Co a bit of a pun, not actually funny. Anyway, he came to own the copyright for that bit of hardware in your skull called the Cortical interface.”

“Around the same time, Earth was suffering a population crisis in the wake of global urbanization. To deal with this, the planetary authorities offered anyone who wanted it a small stipend to purchase teraformation equipment, a plot of land and a free ticket to Mars. Naturally it was an opportunity which many of the poor and the disadvantaged took with enthusiasm and hope.”

            “But, humans were not made for that barren waste, and if you wanted to survive, artificial advancement was necessary. The first cybernetics companies were set up in TelAres; Mar-Co, Honda, Mechadro, Der Arztschmied. People, like Suzuki Maru, would lend out money to poor landowners, they would use the loans to purchase cybernetics, from their lenders, and either give up their land parcels after they were done with the teraformation process, or spend the rest of their lives paying off their debt. Oligarchy. Nothing ever changes.”    

“That’s where you were born?” Saaga found her fingers wrapped around one of the structural metallic struts which crossed his torso.

“Yes, in twenty four ninety two. My father was a partial integration cyborg, big, chrome arms, like armor. He emigrated from a region called Africa with his wife and two children, my mother was a prostitute.” 

“We were poor. The little that would grow in that terrible waste was sold back to earth. Both of my brothers were enhanced, in order to better work the land, but when year after year came around and our meager crops came up stunted and dry. The debt just built up.”

“Word got around that Mar-Co was working on a project which might finally, after years of failure unlock the key to true integrated cybernetics. They were offering millions of dollars for any child between the ages of four and eight with a specific genetic marker. He knew the dangers involved; everyone had heard the stories about poor Brian Lawrence, and all of his dead children. But I was a burden, and, turns out, I was one in a thousand.”  Saaga made a sound of discomfort, shifting her hips experimentally.

“You’ll be more comfortable if you depolarize.” he informed her, suddenly breaking from his narrative.

“What?” she mumbled through the opiate mist, her eyes cracking to icy blue slivers.

“I have to do everything,” he grumbled, reaching around to the tablet which never seemed to leave his side, it was still wirelessly connected to her interface. A moment later she felt the tug of magnetism release. She giggled at the strange sensation of sudden weightlessness, held in place by nothing but Kim’s arm across her torso and her own inertia, Saaga stretched out her legs past the end of the table, tension leaving her body.

“Where was I?”

“One in a thousand,” she muttered.

“Right, it made my family rich. For a little while. Paid off our debts, bought the neighboring properties, all they needed to give up was the bastard.”

“My father cried at the airport, one of the only things I remember, it was so long ago.” he watched Saaga’s eyes close, “I’m a prototype, you know that? One of the first twenty. The first to survive the operation with my mind intact.” he looked down at her, then at the tablet. She was asleep. Deeply, happily asleep.

Kimba lowered the light levels with a hand signal and slid carefully out from under her. He polarized her to the cold steel, slowly, so not to wake her. He watched her for a long moment, tracing the contours of her lips with his eyes. He smiled down at her, at that moment he felt like they were the oldest and the youngest in the whole universe.     

“That I could be bounded in a nutshell,” Kimba touched her hand, “and count myself a king of infinite space.” 



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