The Bird (By Timothy Franklin)
"Found a bird in delta." I say.
John doesn't stir, so I repeat.
"Said a bird flew in. Little scrawny thing, but it got in." "Can't of." "What I thought. But it did."
I can hear John stretch out in the bunk above me, the ancient springs groaning as his body and muscles shift across them.
"Where's the leak?" "Sally's looking. Be in delta though - can't of got through a bulkhead." "Better not be delta two."
I nod, because neither of us want it in delta two.
"What sort of bird?" "Little scrawny bastard, don't know. Could look him up."
John swings himself off the top bunk, and sits down on the end of my bed to do his boots up.
"Nah. Still loose?" "Think so." "Hope he gets out."
And then we laugh, because it's just such a normal thing to think, because birds should be out, shouldn't they? That's how it's supposed to be.
"Work?" John asks. "Yep. See what Sal's got."
* * *
Sally is smiling, because she always smiles. I know every dot of that smile. I know her wrinkles and her dimples, I know her naughty little blemishes, the dead pixels and the human imperfections. Sally has the perfect smile – not too much teeth, that slight delicious curl at the corner – because they knew that we'd be looking at her for a long time.
"Morning, John, Pete." Sally says, because we got fucked off with her calling us "citizens", and she's got sweat readers and ECGs and shit she can use to tell when we don't like her. So she tries to please, and if you don't know she's doing it she's pleasing. "Morning Sal'," I say, swinging into my chair and tapping up my display, "What's the news?"
"Delta-two's going to be closed off." She says in that perfect, Queen's-English way – but you can hear the motors starting to grind at the back of her throat. "The leak's there, a small one. I'm afraid the sector's going to have to go into shutdown."
John doesn't say anything, because there's nothing much to say. Delta-two is going to go into shutdown and it's not going to open again inside our lifetime. Sal' might talk like we have an option, but she IS authority here. "What time?" John asks.
"Two o'clock tomorrow afternoon."
"Why the wait?" John asks, and he's right, it's weird, when we lost omega and theta we got just enough time to leave before we were shut out; then the scallies stripped everything useful out of them, took that to a decontamination suite for a year, and then both sections were shut down and still are.
"The shutdown will occur at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon." Sally repeats. "The sector will remain open until then. Today, though, you need to perform maintenance work in alpha-fourteen."
"Sal', why's the sector not already in shutdown?" I ask, pulling myself out of my chair and right up to her. "Why's delta-two still open?"
"Today you are required to perform maintenance work in alpha-fourteen. Please collect toolset-thirteen-" But John interrupts her angrily.
"No you are not going to do that robot shit on us, Sally, you are not going to do that today. Why is delta-two being left open?"
And then Sally turns to look right into his face as close as only robots get, that personless glare you only get out of silicon eyes. "I just don't want to talk about it, human John, I just don't want to talk about it. Delta-two is being left open until two tomorrow afternoon. This discussion is over."
And I've punched John before now, but I've never seen a blow hit him like that - Sally being so robot and so human all on him at once. And he blushes and wilts away from her, because she's not a woman (although Sam, rest his bones, did once look to see if she was all there and found out yes, cosmetically she was, at the cost of a broken wrist), she's a robot with a bastard sense of personality and a right hook that could kill you.
"Which toolset was we today Sal'?" I ask her, because there's ice in the air.
"Thirteen, Pete. Cable work in alpha-fourteen. Have fun."
* * *
I hate the smell of burnt plastic in the morning. Means I've gone over from a cable onto the casing, and it means John will know I'm not paying attention. So I bite the bullet, and dive straight at the beast that's been killing our conversation all morning.
"What about delta-two then?"
John can't have heard me above his welder, but he puts it down anyway.
"What d'you think of delta-two?" I repeat.
John grits his teeth. "Can we just not talk about it?"
"Last chance we'll ever get." I say, fiddling idly with the setting on my welder. Got to have an excuse to be talking.
"Don't mean we have to talk." He says, and he's about to go back to work but I know we both have to discuss this and if he turns back now the conversation is over.
"Yes it does John, yes it fucking does." "Well go on, how've our options changed?"
And there's the biter. That's why there's no point discussing it. Because they haven't – they're exactly the same bastard options as yesterday. Except yesterday they were always going to be there – and today they'll be gone by tomorrow.
"We have to make a choice now. That's how they've changed." "They're the same fucking options Pete." John growls. "If we weren't gonna make a decision, why'd we ever talk like it was an option?" "Because... oh fuck it Pete, just fuck it." "Why? Why'd we pretend it was an option?" "We are making a decision." "It's being made for us."
John gasps, exasperated. "It was always made for us. It's suicide Pete." "Suicide both ways. What's the difference?" "I'd rather die in comfort, thank you."
And he turns back, and he's about to start up the spark welder again but I am not going to let this bastard thing go.
"You'd rather die here than see it again?"
And I know he's lying, because he says "Yes.", slams his visor down and then fires up the spark welder. He looks angry as he burns through the old cable section, yanks it out with tongs, and starts cutting a new piece into shape. After a moment, he switches the torch off again, and flips his visor back.
"It's not dying if we stay here Pete. Someone might fucking come. It's not impossible."
* * *
The showers in here are industrial, because they wanted them to last. Stay in too long and you come out red and ragged like babies are supposed to be. Haven't seen one in ages, but I've seen videos to remind me. I feel like one coming out the shower though – all my muscles singing like I was just born. It's hateful when you need to be half skinned to feel alive.
Sally is waiting in the stalls, which is bloody weird. I've no problem with her seeing me in the skin – what's she going to be interested in? 'Sides, she has cameras all over the place so she's seen it all before - but she just never does this. She's always so bloody attentive, does anything to keep us busy, stop us killing each other. She offered us sex once - her avatar model is a fuckbot, would you believe – but that would have been too fucking creepy, like shagging your boss and your mum and a toaster all at the same time. But she never comes into the shower stalls, because human women wouldn't do that, so neither should she.
I stand there and towel myself down, and I wait for her to talk. She came here, she can fucking talk.
"How was the cabling, John?" She knows how they are, she can probably feel how they are, but it's good of her to make conversation.
"Not bad Sal'. Couple overheat breaches and a cable that was getting old so we swapped it. Old place is falling apart." And then she knocks me over, just sweeps me over because I'm not expecting what comes next.
"You're not good with women are you, Pete? Old place, old place... oh fuck you Pete."
She was right about the first bit because I haven't seen one in twenty years, but the second bit just means nothing to me. For a robot she can be real womanly, because I know she's pissed with me but I have no idea why.
"What? I – what did I say Sal'?" "Oh just piss off Pete. I know I'm getting on, but real nice of you to say it."
And blam! That little bit you forget about Sal'. Because it's not that Sal' can see all over the base – Sal' is the base, every pipe and tube and camera and computer. When you go for a shit it's Sal' you flush through and when you tug one off it's Sal' you're looking at porn through. And she's looking back at you, and you just have to forget it.
"I'm sorry Sal' I... forgot."
"Yes, of course you fucking forgot. You're always forgetting. Always forgetting and living in your precious little human world. Oh precious, bloody precious. You wouldn't be alive without me."
"Well, obviously... no we wouldn't Sal'."
"Not just the shelter, you idiot. So many times over, I can... I can taste it on you, I can smell it through you, so many times you'd be dead from boredom or fear or misery if I didn't fucking do something. I'm your sodding nanny. Where's the dignity in that? Where is the sodding dignity in that?"
And I try to apologise (But how? You can't buy roses for robots, can you?) so I start,
"Look, I'm sorry Sal', I didn't-" But she cuts me off -
"Why are you even here?" and then she turns and storms out, and God knows I'm stood there dripping and fucking confused.
* * *
I'm sat alone in the canteen. John's worked right the way through lunch break – I'm sure Sal' will start reminding him that he needs to eat soon – and I'm staring into my "pasta" (amazing what they can do with fungi) and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on with Sal'. Why is delta-two open? Why, why, bloody why.
I shove my tray into the cleaning slot and start the trap-trap march through the metal corridors back to our quarters. We got to choose them, quite plush – a beta-ranking bunk-suite. Tough choice. The big dorms are just depressing – two of you in a room made for thirty, your voices echoing around the empty darkness. We moved shop after one night of that. But the ranking suites are further away from the canteen, and that means always the long, lonely march through the corridors with nothing but your own feet for company, and sometimes Sal' – but not today. I pull out the key – the key I keep around my neck day and night – yank the big metal storage case from underneath my bed, and then – I wait. It's been a long time since I opened this. In fact all I can remember is the last time I closed it. Long time. Long long time.
But really if I'm waiting for a moment it's never going to come, so I click the key into place, wince when I turn it because the lock's groaning like a stuck pig, and then it clunks open. Vid disks, lots of them. Diary entries – not quite. Some of them. They're all dated though, guess I'm a little OCD like that. Some of them are conversations. I know how the dates go – the dates go once a month for five years since I first came here, and then blam, that one month, that one August and there's a disk every day. And that carries on two days into the next month, and then I was using up almost three disks a day for a week, and then – nothing. And a little while after that I closed the box.
I take out the last disk, and I close the box, and I lock it, and I put the disk in my inside breast pocket, as close to my skin as I can get. I slide the case back under the bed.
As I leave a camera turns to watch me.
* * *
John's dead. I half expected it. I watch through the window of the medbay as the paddles try to restart him. Buzzz – shp! And then charge. Buzzz – shp! It goes on for two minutes – and then he coughs, chokes up a lump of vomit which a robotic arms swoops in and gently swabs away, and then starts groaning. A second later he's swaddled by a hundred probing, swarming metal proboscis and great swathes of cloth, bundled up as precious as a new born child.
"He left this note." Says Sal's voice, and I shudder and turn round – but she's not there, just a speaker mounted in the wall and a scally holding out a single crinkled piece of paper.
"Thanks Sal'" I mouth and take the note. It's in John's hand writing, and it's covered in tear drops.
"I couldnt leave Pete. Theres no way I could leave. I don't want to die like that. But I don't want to live either. We both know no-ones coming. I dont want you to miss your chance because I wont go with you. Please take the chance. I think I know why Delta-two is still open. Take your chance. I wish I could."
I don't cry, because...
I can feel my heart pounding in my chest, beating against the fabric of my ancient, one piece workman's boiler suit, beating against the cold metal casing of a video disk I haven't watched in a long, long time. * * *
"Hi Pete." "Hi Susan."
Silence. We sit and smile at one another.
"How's the... how's the repair going?" She asks. "Oh. You know. Good. Just good. It's – hah! John was carrying a big box of couplings down from the third landing, supposed to be scally work but he's too proud, and you can guess it he-" "Fell flat on his arse!" We finish together. We laugh, and then we cry just a little. The tears are pooling down her cheeks.
"How's... how's Gavin?" I ask. Susan looks up at me from drying her eyes. "He's – oh, he's gone. He... he's gone." "Oh."
"Your foot?" She starts again. "Oh, it's... mended now. You know. Well, the autodoc's pretty good. You know that big extendable arm we couldn't figure out what it did? With the-" "With the prong on the end?" "Yeah, the prong on the end – yeah. Used that on me. Sort of put a bone setter inside my foot, it was weird. Very weird. Hurt like buggery!" I laugh, and she laughs, and then she starts coughing and walks away from the monitor, and I know she does that because she's spitting up blood and lung.
"So." I say. "So." She says.
"I went to look out the breach last night. I couldn't sleep. One of the breaches – the biggest one. You can see it through an internal window."
"What was it like?"
"Like we remember it. Like I remember night-time. The moon and the stars were so clear up in the sky, you could see the grass – there was grass! Grass and little saplings, they're already growing back! Not little, they were sort of – like little trees. Like reeds almost. They were beautiful."
I just sit and listen. What else can I do? I can't speak. I know what she's going to say. I can't – say anything. I have to just listen.
"It all looks so... beautiful out there. The armour's buckled around everywhere near the surface. You can hear the birds out there. Can you believe it, there are – there are birds! It was just so, so...
"Normal." I choke out. "Yes, so – so normal. Just perfectly normal."
Silence. We sit in silence.
"Pete, I want to-" "Don't say it." "Pete, honey-" "You can do it, but – but God don't tell me. Don't tell me you're going to do it. Just go."
Silence, until we cry. Eventually she just gets up and walks away.
I sat there for two more days after that. I threw those disks into an incinerator. All they have on them is a video of an empty chair, and the sound of me crying.
* * *
The bag I pack is full of things which might be useful – water purifying tablets, fire lighters, blankets, a decent knife, iron rations, etc. etc. I'm probably being naïve – but why not? Doesn't cost me anything.
I go to look in on John – the autodoc hums and clicks around him, limbs jabbing in and yanking back from him like a mechanical spider. It's clear he can't tell what's going on around him. Sal' is standing there, a look of... John used to mock her for it, it was a look that only a machine could get when something real bad had happened to a human, like a kitten watching a butterfly. In this case though it seems just right.
"I'm sorry about earlier." She says, staring down into his face. I guess she's talking to me.
"Not a problem. He going to..."
"He's in a permanent vegetative state. He took a lot of pills, the autodoc thinks Dispropsinol probably. There's no chance of recovery. It's strange though... I couldn't tell that he wanted to take them."
And she turns and looks at me, and I know that I'll never get another answer on the subject. "Really." Whatever the truth is, she'll never feel guilty. She's a robot.
We both look down on him, snaking tubes coiling into his mouth and arms, others pooling away from his waist. I guess he did it. There's nothing of him left now.
"I forget how hard it is for humans." And now John is over, and she's talking about me again. "I just forget. I'm sorry for earlier – I know it's not easy for you. Planet's rightful heirs and you're stuck here doing pointless menial jobs to keep yourselves sane – and you know it because you can double think it, you know there's no point to what you're doing. So you hate what you're doing, and you hate yourself. At least... I assume. That's how you look. How you smell." She sounds worried, like she's just let slip something big and dangerous.
"I know. We knew it."
"Thank God... I was worried. I mean... I try to think like you, but I just can't be sure. I don't want to worry you. I'm not human. I can't be. But part of me wants to be, you know that? Part of me wants to be human. And the other half hates me for it. The other half wants me to be robot."
And it's strange, because this is the first time since she introduced herself that she's mentioned what she is.
"What's... what's robot like?"
"Robot is like human, but not trying to be, it's... just being. It's who I am. And even if who I am is only spit away from human – I want to be who I am, not who the fucking programmers thought I should. If you see."
I suppose I do, but I can't relate. I've always been too busy hating who I was to worry about being something else.
"I'm leaving Delta-two open so you can leave. I guess you know that, but I'm saying it. Please leave. I feel so... so sorry for you. You've lived almost all your life in a cage, you've not been able to choose anything. Not anything. Everything proscribed by me and by the government that made me, the psychologists that taught me how to deal with loneliness. Fungus to eat, jobs to do... But I want to give you a choice. Just this one thing. It's the most I can do. I'm sorry I wasn't a better person."
And I laugh, because that's the dumbest thing she's ever said. "You were the best person you could be, under the circumstances. You were fucking perfect." I can feel tears brimming in my eyes. "You and John both."
I pick up my bag, and as I turn to go Sally stays standing by John's bed. I ask her -
"What will you do?"
"What I was programmed to do. Wait for humans to come, until I die. There's no dignity in being a robot. My death was chosen for me - it'll just happen one day when I don't work any more. I won't even see it. There's no dignity in being a robot. But I want there to be dignity in the world, John, I want there to be dignity. I hope there are people out there John. Honestly I do. But the last of the shelters stopped talking to me a long time ago. Don't... don't hope for anything. Just... please leave. Leave... like humans do." And she's staring down at John, staring down into that pile of organs with a heart that's still beating but only just.
I want to embrace her, but what would be the point? She's held me every moment for the last 35 years. I've grown old inside her.
"The bird was a crow, Pete. In case you wondered. A scally found it dead this morning."
* * *
Sector Delta, subsection 2, corridor 32b, door 15 through 30 are permanent waste disposal chutes. They're one way air-locks – the only way in and out of the base after we lost omega. I pull off the maintenance hatch from one and jury rig it to cycle. I've got ten seconds to get in. Nine. Eight.
Fuck it. I jump inside. Better to regret this than to regret not doing this. Better to regret this...
The door cycles, and I slide down a chute into interminable darkness.
* * *
I'm sitting in sunlight. There's grass underneath me. The slag heap beneath the disposal chutes is well overgrown with plants, soft mosses and ferns. The air is cool, autumnal – the sun is middling in the sky, starting to ebb, settling into it's evening groove. There are trees growing up all around us, young ones, none of them mature, but bearing the fading leaves of autumn. Everything is old and new here all at once. It's grown back so quick. The valley I'm in is carpeted with gold. A river cuts a gentle rill through the landscape.
I stand up, and for the first time in years I notice that my joints ache. I'm old. I'm not a young man any-more. I went in there young – 17 was I? - but that was 35 years ago. So I'm 52. I'm 52. I look at my hands and I can see the veins in them.
I trace my hand along the side of the bunker, its metal sides warm in the sun. I can feel the hum of fluids coursing through conduits – coolants and fuels and – hah! - coleslaw, that got a tube all to itself. It was a place made for hundreds, thousands – it only ever saw 60. Things went wrong on the way in. When the slate got wiped clean, only one plane made it through. I remember staring out of that little port-hole sized window, down on the surroundings – I thought that broiling desert, that ashen wasteland would never end. That flight, that long stormy flight, the plane thrown about like a paper toy and then us hurtling into a vast impenetrable darkness and knowing that was where we were going to spend our lives...
There are animals here now. I can see them in the undergrowth – little deer, a fox. Rabbits – lots of rabbits. And the birds... it's not dawn, but the chorus is beautiful, a hundred thousand little voices raised up, just singing. I'd forgotten what birdsong was like.
My fingers thrill along the rough metal of the bunker. Up ahead is the breach, the hole in the middle of the complex. On what was my side of it, the two nearest complexes – omega and theta – are open to the world, and closed to the complex beyond. On the far side are omega and theta twin – the same fate for them. In-between was the main entry hanger, called "The Door". The only real way in or out.
Massive metal struts, as thick as I am tall, jut out into the void where The Door used to be. The rest is a crater and a tangled mess of metal from where the Hydrogen-power plant blew. Best laid plans... Don't know what made it blow though. Sal' told us she couldn't be conclusive – John and I speculated of course. But nothing convincing. Probably just dumb, blind bad luck.
It takes a long time to pick my way through the twisted metal rubble. In the distance I can make out mountains, not white-tipped, but dipping their heads into the clouds. The sides are covered with the same, not old but not young trees – different types. I don't recognise them, there weren't many trees around when I was growing up. Some are slender and white, some twisting and gnarled, and others with tops like little pom-poms they're so perfectly round. They're all golden though – red and yellow and orange and the faintest brown I've ever seen.
The sun is hanging around noon by the time I get to the far end of the complex. Susan's end. Everyone else's end really – John and I were working in alpha when the generator went, just about everyone else was asleep in their barracks. We were on remedial duty for getting pissed on work – that was back when there was a human in charge of us. Captain Green. Nice chap. I heard he was in the hangar when it went up. Shame. He'd be dead by now anyway. Maybe.
I lean back against the wall of the bunker. I'm feeling tired now. Very tired. Sort of old. Old and weak and so wasted. I wonder what cancer feels like. I wonder how radiation feels. This tinny taste in my mouth... is it dying, or is it just getting old?
I close my eyes.
* * *
It's dawn when I open them again. I'm refreshed. I must have slept for 12 hours, more. The sun is peaking its way over the rim of the valley, spilling light down and over the golden sea before me.
There is a crow standing in front of me. He turns to watch me with first one, and then the other eye. It's a healthy bird, plush black feathers and a sharp beak.
As it flies away, I stand up, and walk into the valley.Timothy Franklin