The engineer is kind enough, in that he lets Marin breathe his enriched oxygen. He lights something to smoke, lets most of it burn off into the room. The filters kick into high gear. Filters. Her lungs sear; her throat feels scorched. Marin holds her oxygen pack to her face with one hand and lets her father handle the pleasantries.
“You know, that’s contraband,” the engineer says, and Marin exists in a moment of pure terror. He winks. “I’ll allow it.”
Her heart knocks against her ribs and she gasps and tries to keep the malice from her smile. First impressions must be made.
The engineer holds out the deal with grimy, upturned hands. He calls them industrial models, and Marin’s father laughs. They’re remembering something, together, from earth. Two gears laughing at the clock they’ve been soldered into. They raise their voices in raucous laughter and for a moment, it’s enough to drown out the hideous wheezing that’s coming from Marin’s chest.
The faux-lungs themselves are ugly things: dull metal, recycled ore, that early shimmery-soft bio-tissue that looks like liquid metal grafted together. She’s seen patchwork fixes in the clinic, for miners with the goriest injuries—bones breaking through skin, crushed fingers, gruesome burns that go deep to the muscle. These are different; these are intricate. A faux-trachea shines with seams of blue: already cracked. They tremble in their case like living pieces of slag.
The medtechs have offered her months to live and carefully meted pity. This bargain is a bad deal. Marin is a bad deal. Too young to be in the mines, too damaged to ever earn out her contract topside. There is a scarcity to the air that is more marked for her than it is for the miners that file out of the tunnels at night, retching into their sleeves. Best case, she stops coughing up blood long enough to put in a few good years in the refinery before she’s right back here, dying.
But her father has always been blind when it comes to Marin and his eyes are bright and the pen is already in his hand.
Don’t you want to breathe? His favorite refrain. Don’t you want to get better?
Marin doesn’t want to be the one to tell him she’s not worth his contract.
“Bet you’ll be glad to get rid of those,” the engineer says, pointing at her chest. As if parts of her can be plucked out and replaced for convenience’s sake.
But these lungs are hers, and they’re the only ones she’s ever had, and she’s not ready to be rid of them yet.
“I know they don’t look like much, but I do good work. Stronger than those vanity models,” says the engineer. “You can buy yourself a few good years.” He flips the blinds and looks out at the bank of their little river, flush with cobalt dust.
He smiles, generous, irresistible, at Marin’s father.
A few good years for who, she doesn’t ask.
They’re not a rich colony. The only surgeon is out of their reach, over on the light side. Here, they make do with expired supplies and good sense and self-preservative ignorance.
Marin sees herself on the table, anesthetized with contraband from the livestock facility, peeled open and glistening. The medtechs put her real lungs in a bin for disposal. They look like soft pumice, mottled and shrunken and pockmarked. The techs shuffle her, rearranging her ribs, her heart. They make room.
Put me back, she wants to say.
They take their time. They trace their fingers over the imperfect craftsmanship of her faux-lungs, mesmerized. They press on the bio-fiber just to see it clench and shudder, blow on the ends of the shining silvery veins to draw the color to the surface and watch it fade.
She is intensely aware of the moment the metal goes into her, matches up, slots together with her own self. A breathlessness, and then something almost as good as breath: a coolness, a relief.
There’s something else, too: a blunting. A binding.
After, she claws her way back to consciousness alone in the tent she shares with her father. Her center of gravity has shifted. She’s heavier. Her new lungs feel huge in her chest, drag-anchoring her to the ground. Living tissue bears its own weight, at least. Her breathing is jagged, still, her chest distended and stiff. Her blood is a little darker, a little thicker.
The wrongness of it pervades her and she presses her hands to her chest and feels the solidity there and wonders how she would even go about ripping them out. She feels along her collarbone and hits bone in the wrong places. She settles into her newness. Acquaints herself with her transplanted chassis.
Her father is so pleased. He says she’s the future. That she’s lucky. He kisses her on the forehead and holds a stolen oxygen pack to her face, his own lips tinged with blue.
The colony doesn’t break ground for burials. Shooting the dead into space is foolproof and cheap and Marin’s been borrowing so much of her life for so long that she doesn’t imagine it will happen to her any differently. The disposal techs talk about sending her remains back to earth for study, but there’s another strike and the supply lines are all being rerouted. There’s only room for one body amidst all that expensive dead cargo, and it’s not hers.
Marin was nobody, so she gets zipped into a bag. She drifts along behind the techs, separate, bound, as they drag her body to processing. The metal detector trips when they wheel her through the bay doors. They pat their pockets, check the scanner. They look at each other and then at the body bag that has Marin in it.
The moment they cut into her and see gleaming metal lodged in her chest, she’s salvage. Her own quarry. She doesn’t blame them; they see some future they couldn’t see before—inside her is the shape of baseless, desperate hope. Something to sell, something to study. Something to pass up the line to buy themselves a little more freedom.
She gets wheeled into another room, a lab where corpses go to be fed to the incinerator. They rifle through her bones and pluck the thing out of her ribs and sever the connections and then she is in two. She is scavenged. They carve her up, pull the cobalt trachea out of her, piece out the bronchi. They rinse it all until it gleams under the grey water sputtering from the tap.
She realizes, as they discard the meat-bits of her, that she has never seen a real, healthy lung, only imagined them: soft, pink, with feathery blood vessels, like the pictures in her moldy books.
I can’t believe someone signed off on this, someone is saying. Look at this vein, Jesus, who’s refining this shit? They pry their tools into her crevices. They tilt her body and scrape metal over her and eventually she’s turned out into someone’s palm. The warmth feels like the sun that’s been described to her over a lifetime and she is handled with reverence, with tenderness.
Oh yeah, the technician says. We can make use of this.
Marin’s never asked where the cobalt goes. Most of them don’t. They’re all consumed by the just-until-tomorrow’s, the grind of it. Mouths covered until they can return to their little bubbles of stale air. Everyone falling over themselves to dig out that blue marrow for some stranger across the terminator line, across the galaxy.
Something of Marin is stuck in one of the new minerbots. Her new body creaks and shudders. Sometimes when the dust gets bad her joints lock up. Her plating is junk metal, the kind that hasn’t been tempered right. Her limbs are too big. Her treads stick in the mud.
The only grace in this body is that it’s inured from the poison that seeps out of the ground, that she is able to stand sentry while she watches everyone else sleepwalk toward messy, protracted deaths of scarcity. She records those: time, date, identification number, quadrant, corridor. She thinks it must be half programming, half self-imposed imperative: remember the ones who manage to escape this wretched dynamo. She looks for herself in them, but they’re all caught up in their dying. The best she ever did was train for it.
She tries not to get lost in her seething jealousy, her awe for the way they all meet their ends.
She thinks she doesn’t make a very good minerbot.
Sometimes, late at night, in her blue-lit alcove, she plays a game to try and learn this shell, to shock her new self awake. She focuses her will on trying to move its limbs forward. Corrupting its database. Writing directives of her own. Her speech processors aren’t calibrated for screaming; the best they can do is translate her distress into a flat, garbled moan.
She sees a man that looks like her father, one day. They all look like her father: faces sallow and grey and crusted with poison, spitting the dust from their mouths. The man is trapped in a sinkhole. His corridor is flooding. He shouts at her. Help me. You stupid fucking bot, do something. But Marin’s mouth is a slit and her voice is pre-recorded and all she can do is watch.
Stay calm, she chirps. Help is on the way.
She’s decommissioned the next day when she coaxes her treads off the bridge and into the river.
She is six. We’ll fix you right up, her father tells her, the first time she becomes conspicuously ill. She’s young yet, he tells her. She will get better. Right now, it’s new. It’s hard. The air is visibly thick; the atmosphere is thin enough that they dwell under a sky of eternal twilight. The storms turn dry and vicious as they blow in over the terminator zone. The dust kicks up cold, like the stories about winter back on earth. No snow, though. Everything that rains down here rains down grey.
He sees a future where she lives lives upon lives, the world she’ll inhabit when she grows up. There’s enough wonder in her still to believe him, to imagine that someday she might leave the dust behind. She has so much to look forward to, her father tells her. The mines, the planet, the adventure of it all. The colony will be different, so different, by the time she’s grown—
Marin is in pieces, dumped in a bucket, onto a conveyer belt—
Marin is eight and her father crosses the line every day to throw out his back digging holes for the drill housing. He comes back slouching and stiff to kiss her on the forehead. He reads to her about history and time. He pulls pieces of stolen ore out of his pockets, lets her turn them over in her hands, holds them up to the light. This is better than air, he tells her—
—melted and pressed, melted and pressed, and still she can’t find herself, formless, and she only has the shape of the memory of what it was like to have a body—
—she doesn’t get better. Her father coughs, now, too. He forges her ID card on her birthday. He hands it to her and tells her she is a technician, now. The colony is hiring lots of technicians because the old minerbots from earth buckle under the gravity, here. They’ll work it out soon. The colonists say this with awe, as if they are so lucky to be denied innovation. Like it’s a great privilege to burn out your life in service of this dead rock, in service of other, better, luckier bodies somewhere else. The business is in the bodies, here. Use one up and the corps can buy another. Humans are doing the work of machines, always, paving their way. They are all just passing the time between now and when they cease—
Marin lies in the tent and listens to the oxygen recycle and imagines what it would be to fill a cart with cobalt and walk along the filthy tributary that feeds into the grey river without one hand pressing a mask to her face—
—she is rinsed, tumbled, rinsed. Formless is better, maybe. She warms. It feels like soothing and dark, like there may be an end to it—
—her father trades his rations for codeine for a week after the medtechs turn her away. His worker friends have to drag him back into the tent. She looks at the bottle in her hands, weighs the pain of bright hunger against the pain of seizing lungs. “Oh, dad,” she tells him. “I wish you wouldn’t.” She isn’t going to last the year—
—fucked up the tempering, someone is saying, do it again—
—she’s eighteen and furious and holding a mask to her face between yelling at her stupid, naive father who won’t hear her. “You’ll outlive all of them,” he insists. He curls up on the floor on his mat, so scant beneath his filthy jumpsuit. He used to take up all the space in a room. He has withered into this stranger. “Just wait until they get the condensers working and we have real air,” he says. “You’ll see.” You’ll see.
He was right, almost. Outlive was generous.
She is some kind of pollution monitor nestled into the fine silt at the bottom of the river, a crab that’s had its legs pulled off. She misses the sun. She is buried and flayed by tons and tons of rock and dust and filth suspended in the current. She’s traded one life of drowning for another.
Sometimes there are human hands on her. This body is simpler than her last; it’s not hard to trip the switch to shut the sensor off, to force herself to malfunction. Anything to attract their attention, anything to buy herself a few moments of maintenance out of the water. On these occasions she is drawn out and shaken before she is discarded again, her meter ignored.
The current rushes ever on and her housing fills with water and sediment. She goes unnoticed, tucked away from even the stars, her mouth soldered open in a silent scream.
Enough of her is here that she can thread herself through the wires. She must be in one of the administrative complexes. She finds the computer system unrecognizable, labyrinthine. The datacore gives her the current year and she laughs and rages, leaning on calcified muscle memory. She fries three of the door controls on level two.
It is nice to be touched, palm after palm laid against those control consoles. The soft press of a passcode is almost like a whisper; the way they bend for retina scans feels like supplication. Even the momentary agony that comes with a short out is welcome. For the first time in years, she’s maintained. They check her all the time. They go to great lengths to ensure her functionality. Her sensors are cleaned. Her interface demands constant attention and she is quietly thrilled with the new power she commands.
Her dominion is absolute. She can open the doors. She can deny entry. She can override the airlock controls and steal everyone’s breath, flood their buildings with nothing, watch them beg and gasp and die.
She wonders at that. How she can still find fury, after so long.
She lets them live, she operates as expected. Clean people with clean clothes breathing clean air. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be here. She needs to be better than this monstrous system that has subsumed her. She needs to be able to tolerate herself. She hasn’t looked in a mirror for a long time.
It’s the first time Marin has passed the terminator line. She didn’t dare imagine it, in life; she’s only ever experienced this side of the tidal-lock in the quiet space of stories and hushed whispers. The reality is grimier: she sits in a dried-up tidal basin, one of a thousand panels with their cracked faces turned skyward.
The sun soaks into her metal frame. She has few visitors. The dirt here is just dirt: inoffensive, inert. It stays on the ground instead of tearing over the plains in swirling clouds. She luxuriates in her frame of steel and weathered glass and cobalt, waits for the thin clouds to part so she can drown in the scant sunlight.
Her barometric readings tell her that the oxygen is abundant, now. Particulate matter has settled. The sky is the color of those pictures of junk cobalt, the pieces that weren’t pure enough to be beaten into alloys. A stratosphere is forming. It is an embarrassment of riches. What lies they’ve all been told, over there in the dark. How constrained they all were.
To think they all thought they knew air.
She passes years without seeing a human. Overhead, the transport ships skim the planetary rings streaked white over the sky, like someone has scraped away space itself. She dreams of the ascent. Of making it off-world. Of all of her, collected and brought back together and thrown gently into the same scrapheap.
It is almost a relief to be in the dark again. To be home. She is spread across so many pieces of metal, now. They have scavenged her from stolen scrap, and she is melted and cast and propped up on the hill overlooking the narrowest stretch of river. She is riveted back together and returned to herself and soldered into something strong and deliberate.
Hundreds of hands are on her at a time. Sometimes they come to her, alone, press their palms to her frame and whisper their hopes to her. It is almost warm, like skin on skin. So many of them must be dreaming for the first time. There is finally room to imagine what might be, it seems. There has not been a new engineer in some time. The ships have stopped coming. The river is a little clearer. These things they tell her. Please work, baby, they say. This is it, I can feel it.
She lets herself hope, for them.
She gathers, little by little, a sense of the future they intend for her. They tell her stories of escape. They tell her stories of the people they have held, the people they have breathed, the ones they’ve lost. She is to be a vessel; they will use her to leave this planet behind.
There will be no more dust and no more lungs and no more sky, but she is glad to be something more than slag to these hoping bodies.
She fails them. She never makes it past the fragile, fledgling cloud layer. She tries to stave off her reeling panic, but it spreads through her like the seizing of a diaphragm, the choking of phantom lungs. It shocks her metal into something brittle and shuddering; it shears away like sloughing skin. The loss of it all, the enormity of almost, drops her from the sky.
This feels familiar, too: she always gets so close. The sky recedes. The dizziness overtakes her.
The Corps burns the bodies before they dismantle her. They use her white-hot wreck as a pyre. She welcomes the scorching. She wishes it would take. But she’s been breathing worse than smoke her whole life and she should know better by now: the lifeless parts of her always endure.
Her body is wide and expansive. She holds back tons and tons of freezing poison, years, decades, centuries of the things the Corps has put away, out of sight, as if that lessens the violence of their transgressions. The reservoir runs through her teeth, cascades down the surface of her, thunders into the canyon below.
Her once-home is unrecognizable. She is distant from the parts of her that could tell her how long it’s been. An eternity, certainly. She’s built into the mountains she’d only ever glimpsed from the ground in that first life. The first time it rains, she thinks she’s being demolished, the water stinging against her broad self. But then the barrage turns angry and bright and lovely. Almost too much after so long spent blunted and cold. She wonders if the atmosphere is suffused with metal, too. If there are places untouched by cobalt on this wretched colony. If it’s still a colony or mostly a grave.
Open, closed, open, closed. She complies, this time. She plays thrall to whomever, whatever is controlling her. They must have learned better than to let her access their systems, or perhaps she is simply less every century. Perhaps every time she is diluted and melted and hammered into something new she loses something of herself.
One day, after a flood, bodies wash up against the base of her. Their blood rubs off on the piling; they stain her.
Her fury, muted for so long, reverberates through her, and she cracks. It doesn’t take much; the poison has been eroding her for a long time. It drips down her face in a foul welter. There is more of it, and more of it. The waterline at her base disappears as the trickle becomes a torrent.
The river swells and spills over its grey-blue banks. It carries the silt, the shale, the bodies. It sweeps through the valley, forces what has been extracted back into the ground. All her life has been this: the dread, the waiting, the knowledge that she is failing, will fail. That her center is one breath away from collapsing. That the most she can do is hasten her own collapse.
She can drive mercy towards them. Out of herself. She wants them to know, just once, what it feels like.
The trick has always been the same: keep breathing.
Marin groans and heaves. Sighs. Lets the deluge cleave her.