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Empire of Dirt

Seiko waited for me at the exit of my tunnel. My other Pilot, Ahna, had already switched off her mental links and raced back to her quarters, eager for distraction after hours of mind numbing work. Keeping me under control required most of their focus. Without their constant push, I had a tendency to mutiny.

“Long day,” said Seiko, who occasionally escorted me to the breedling quad. Dark circles ringed her eyes and her shoulders sagged.

I loped beside her, struggling to keep up with her long strides. Was it?

“You can stop thinking at me, Nanus. I’m right here.”

“Habits,” I said, switching the link in our connection to verbal mode. “Sorry.”

“Long day when you have little to show for it.”

“You got your quota.”

“But all in the last half hour. This shortage is wearing on me.”

“I can tell.”

Seiko stopped and canted her head. “You can?”

“I don’t have to see it with my eyes, you know.” I tapped my temple. “It’s there, like a hum in the background.”

Seiko grunted.

“It’s Ahna, too, isn’t it?” I said.

The tips of Seiko’s ears turned pink, confirming I had guessed right. “Don’t say anything to her,” said Seiko.

“What are you going to do?”

“You wouldn’t understand, even if I could explain it.”

“You might keep yourself behind a wall,” I said, “but Ahna is less defensive. I know more than you think.”

Seiko’s face crumpled into an ugly sneer. “Second hand, Nanus. The things you glean from us are meaningless without context.”

We walked in silence until we crossed the field, a barren expanse of orange silicoat dust, and entered the garage. Seiko had told me that when the first speculators arrived, the planet was so ore rich that spikes of bault literally burst from the ground. That was long before my time.

Once we reached the breedling compound, Seiko slid a stepstool to me and opened the door of my crate. “Up you go,” she said.

I hesitated.

“Nanus,” she said. “You still do this? To me? I won’t come with you anymore. I’ll just shove your mind from somewhere far away like everyone else.”

I shimmied up the step ladder and crawled into the dark interior of my crate.

“Good night, Nanus,” said Seiko and she locked the door behind me.

“I could think to Ahna about you. I could insinuate certain things, make her think they were her own thoughts.”

Seiko hissed, forcing breath between clenched teeth. “I’d kill you,” she said and shut down the supply to the lights. The garage went dark. When Seiko said she would kill me, her intent was genuine, but we both knew the threat was baseless. I was an exception to the breedling rule, a fortuitous twist of genetic fate, an everlasting child who never aged, never outgrew her tunnel diameters. The geneticists would keep me alive as long as it took for them to figure out how to make more just like me.

***

That night I sprawled on my sleeping mat among my small collection of possessions—a battery powered hand-lamp and a few tattered novels and books of poetry, carefully selected to encourage my complacency and cooperation. Brain anesthesia. I suspected Seiko authored a few of the poems; out of pity she had taught me to read, using these same, confining narratives.

I felt Seiko in the stories, and although she denied writing them, I once or twice caught the stains of the words in her memory. She often alluded to shadowed passageways and infinite closed doors. Eternal darkness. No escape. It was meant as a reminder for me, to keep me in my place. I didn’t need the books. Without Seiko, there was nowhere I wanted to go.

I sometimes dreamed that Seiko was the one roaming those dark corridors, knocking, searching for Ahna, but she wouldn’t be there. In my dreams Seiko never found her.

I put aside the books and picked up a gem of compressed silicoat the color of deep rust and completely worthless. Sometimes I found them in my tunnels and slipped them into my pocket. I slid the gem’s sharp edge across the fat pad of flesh at the base of my thumb, pressing until the skin broke open around it, weeping a thick, red tear. I sometimes hurt myself like this to see if I still felt anything of my own; not something put there by my Pilots’ mental suggestions.

The stones were so prolific they held no value as a jewel and couldn’t be converted to fuel like bault ore. Too bad, because mining them would have kept me in work for three lifetimes. For the many years since my birth, I had resisted my purpose, but without the mines, my reason for existence ceased. And then what? Incineration if I was lucky. Salvaged and put to work in the flesh parlors if I was not.

***

The next morning I came awake on my own, not as a result of the mental alarm clock my Pilots sent me as turned on our mental connections. I was disoriented and my heart beat like an angry bee trapped behind a window. I scuttled to the end of my crate and peered out. No lights—no movement. No sound except for the snuffles of the sleeping breedlings around me.

It was a workday, but the crews were off-line. I reached out in my mind for Seiko, searching for an explanation. Without the work to prompt them, the Pilots never elected to establish connections with their breedlings, but I found her there anyway, waiting for me.

“Nanus.”

At first I didn’t answer her. I probed and Seiko allowed it, but only so far, letting me find the answers she didn’t want to verbalize. “We’re pulling out,” she said.

When?

“Couple of days.”

Where will you go?

Seiko sent me a likeness of an ocean—whitecaps and foam assaulting white sand beaches. She conveyed another picture: a mechanical contraption shaped like a silver tear. It sank beneath the water and settled on a sandy bottom ribbed by the flow of currents.

A robotic arm stabbed out from the teardrop, tearing a hole in the sand before a flexible pipe took its place to suck up something beneath the surface. The lifeblood of yet another planet. Behind the controls of the submersible sat a breedling, and linked to the breedling, a Pilot.

Good for you, I said, bereft of sincerity. I feared for your unemployment.

“Come with me,” said Seiko.

I don’t know anything about underwater operations. I was specifically made to withstand the rigors of tunneling and long-term exposure to bault gas.

“Nothing about you came out to spec, Nanus. I’m not asking your permission.”

Doesn’t matter.

“Ahna is coming, too.”

She doesn’t give a damn for me.

Seiko huffed her frustration. I marveled that even those little bursts of emotions managed to transmit. “It’s not always about you,” she said.

Doubtful of her intentions for me, I pushed into Seiko, searching for truth. She threw up a mental wall, but I rammed against it until it crumbled. Seiko shrieked, and while she struggled to recover, I ravaged her thoughts. My attack was merciless, but she knew it was a possibility when she reached out to me, alone, without Ahna to help keep me subdued.

“Nanus, stop it,” she pleaded.

I ignored her, plunging further into her mental morass—there was so much of it. Then I found it, the soft glowing thing. The place she protected from me. The internal dwelling I never pressed to find out of my respect for her. But it was worth throwing all that away to know if she was telling the truth about taking me with her or not.

I discovered it was true, after all, that women were rare in her profession. But Seiko kept herself apart from the other Pilots not because of her gender, but because she desired only Ahna’s companionship and affections. A hundred times Seiko tried to tell her, but the words would not come. The fear that Ahna did not return the sentiment was too great. It crippled Seiko.

It made her a lot like me.

I pushed deeper and, in that place where Seiko secreted her adoration for Ahna, I found another figure, a small, familiar shape, stained orange with silicoat dust. A breedling. But it wasn’t me. It was another girl, young and broken. She sat cross legged, tethered to a bed, and her jaw was set, signifying childish stubbornness. Unwelcome tears sparkled in her eyes. My previous Pilots had thought of similar scenes before, giving me a name for Seiko’s imagery. It was a flesh parlor, a common conclusion for a breedling who had otherwise exhausted her purpose.

With a great heave Seiko shoved me out of her head and slammed down her walls. “Screw you, Nanus. Go rot in your cage.”

The disconnect was abrupt, like a shower turned on when all the hot water was gone. I shrieked and shook myself, but remembered I was dry in my dark crate, in the garage, quad four of the breedling complex. Until someone deigned to turn on the lights, we would all remain in blackness. Likely no one would turn on the lights—an unnecessary waste of resources on a bankrupt planet.

On my mat I curled up into a ball and reflected on the secrets I had stolen from Seiko. But at what cost? I had hurt my only friend. Without her my place on this planet was nothing but a crumbling empire of dirt.

***

I floated deep underwater while my submersible’s hose sucked away at the crevice I had stabbed into the ocean floor with a robotic drill. My impermeable teardrop afforded about as much space as the tunnels I used to dig, but it came with windows. It smelled of mildew sometimes, but never the dead meat odor of bault gas. The ginger stain of silicoat dust had faded from my skin, but I still carried the gems in my pockets.

After the way I assaulted her, Seiko had every right to leave me behind and petition for a new breedling. Instead, I found myself in a position I never dreamed was possible. Seiko’s loyalty would have been humbling, if I was capable of such a sentiment.

Seiko and Ahna pressed on my mind the way I imagined my submersible felt the pressure of the ocean straining against its hull—always there, pushing, trying to crumple it into a piece of litter. I had been well behaved, acquiescent, never giving Seiko and Ahna a reason to consider adding reinforcements.

That was all about to change.

“This is a piece of cake,” said Ahna. “I could take a nap until Nanus is ready to move to the next strike.”

I sensed her relaxation and bunched my muscles as if preparing to deal a physical blow. Ahna was like this lately, unguarded, tranquil—as if she wanted me to take her.

“You think she doesn’t wait for that?” said Seiko. “You think Nanus isn’t constantly watching for us to relax?”

Ahna laughed, harsh enough to make me flinch. “She’s your loyal pet, Seiko. She’ll never go anywhere without you.”

Seiko was right, though—complacency around me was dangerous. Quickly, before Ahna changed her mind, I launched an assault, piercing her with the sharpest thoughts I could imagine. I envisioned the edges of silicoat glass as I cut through her psyche.

“Stop it!” screamed Seiko. “Nanus, what are you doing?”

I’m a proud little bastard, I thought. Did you forget?

“Let her go. Please.” Seiko’s tears choked her transmission like I imagined them choking in her throat. “Her nose is bleeding.”

How close do you sit with her?

“What?” she shrieked.

Is it close enough to touch? Does Ahna ever reach out to you? Take your hand in hers?

Ahna gathered herself for a defensive, but it was weak. My first blow was too brutal.

Has she kissed you, Seiko? Has she shared herself with you?

“You don’t know anything about—”

Answer the question!

“Will you let her go? Will you promise to stop hurting her?”

I will, if you’re honest with me.

“Then look for yourself.” And there she was, Seiko’s vital emotions exposed as if her essence was cracked open for surgery.

Ever since Ahna first found Seiko, they had worked side by side, every day, Ahna sitting a hair’s breadth away. Seiko had hinted at her feelings on occasion. The few times Seiko worked up the courage to touch her, Ahna turned away under some excuse, so Seiko was never quite sure. Seiko’s nights were solitary. The corridors in her poems were real in this place, and she walked them aimlessly, unable to sleep. Her loneliness and uncertainty ate her, drained her, turned her into a shade.

“Now let her go,” said Seiko, and she pushed me away.

I eased back on Ahna. Her link went limp and bled away like water down the drain. I waited to see if Seiko would also sever her connection with me. I didn’t need Pilots to guide my return to the surface anymore, and Ahna had one thing right—without Seiko there was nowhere I wanted to go.

Later, I didn’t know the time, Seiko approached my mind again. “Ahna didn’t deserve that. I know you did it on my behalf, but she didn’t deserve it. It doesn’t make me happy for you to punish someone I love. How will she ever reach out to me if she fears your retribution?”

Ahna would never come to Seiko anyway, regardless of my actions. I had seen it all before Ahna passed out. Is she okay? I asked.

“She fell and hit her head,” Seiko said. “The concussion was worse than whatever you did to her. It’s time you come back to the surface.” Seiko mentally fingered our connection as if to pull it loose. “And Nanus, if you do anything like this again, I will end you. No more empty threats. Even if it means they rip out my transmission chips and I never Pilot again.”

***

After I secured my submersible for the night, Seiko walked me back to my garage. I hadn’t seen her in person in weeks and she had wasted during our time apart.

“I think you need a vacation,” I said.

“Sacred Mother’s Memoriam of Birth is next week. We’ll get a day or two.”

“Next week? That means we’ve been here…” I tried to calculate, but Seiko beat me to it.

“Six months, give or take.”

I took Seiko’s hand, but she yanked away and retreated several steps. Except in flesh parlors, breedlings and Pilots never touched. It was offensive. Taboo. Not like I cared.

“You’ve got to stop this,” I said. “You’re letting this obsession eat you alive.”

“You don’t know—” said Seiko, but I cut her off.

“I do know. Do you want me to show you what I know?” Through our shared transmission I held up an image of Ahna, pristine like the portraits of hallowed subjects displayed on the holy days. It was Seiko’s own idealistic notion of Ahna and I was ready to rip it to shreds, but nothing I had done to Seiko in our life together would compare to the pain of showing her the truth of Ahna’s feelings unless Seiko really wanted it—unless she was ready to surrender.

“No!” Seiko shrieked and grabbed me, unaware of herself. Some of the other Pilots passing over the concourse between submersible bay and the dormitories gasped and looked away. Seiko dropped her hands again. “Nanus, no. Whatever you think you know, whatever you think you saw in her head, it’s not reality. The things in our thoughts are distorted by imagination and emotion.”

I showed Seiko what I uncovered of her feelings for Ahna the day I tore into her defenses back on the planet with the bault mines. “Not real?” I asked.

Seiko covered her face with her hands as if to shut out the vision, but the image wasn’t before her eyes and I wouldn’t make it go away until she answered me.

“Yes,” Seiko said. “For me, it’s real.”

I projected an image of the little girl I had found, hiding in the same place where Seiko hid her feelings for Ahna. The girl was silicoat stained and hunched from working in a tunnel half her size. How could I force Seiko to choose between real and not real if I wouldn’t do it for myself? “Not real?”

“Real,” Seiko whispered. “It’s real, you little bitch. Don’t ever ask me to tell you that again.”

***

“Welcome back, Ahna.” I sat on the floor of my crate, stumpy legs dangling over the edge. Ahna sat beside me, perched on top of my stepstool. This was the first time I had ever seen her in person and she was older than I expected—streaks of silver shot through her dark hair, fine crinkles lined the skin around her eyes and lips. When Seiko thought of Ahna, she always pictured her as timeless and radiant.

It was so unlike Ahna to visit the breedling quad, to show any concern or awareness of me beyond my role as a tool. Her presence here made me uneasy and I wondered what it meant. Ahna had brought me a cup of beer and a slice of cake in honor of Sacred Mother’s Memoriam of Birth; the day we paid homage to the one from whom all breedling life sprang. I pictured the Sacred Mother shaped very much like a test tube, but the prints and holographs hung up in her honor showed her humble headed, sweet smiling, and glowing in soft, gold light. “How’s your head?” I asked.

Ahna grimaced. “Still attached to my shoulders, no thanks to you.”

“Would you believe me if I said I regretted it?”

“I believe you,” she said. “You love Seiko. You would kill for her.”

“I wasn’t going to kill you,” I said. “I just had to know the truth.”

“Why haven’t you told Seiko what you saw in my head?”

“It would destroy her.”

Ahna nodded her agreement. “She doesn’t really love me—just some idea of me that she’s made up. Why doesn’t she find someone else, Nanus? Why is she killing herself over me?”

“She’s afraid because it means risking her hope. You’ve never turned her away, and that’s better than taking the risk that someone else might. It’s the only thing that keeps her going. The hurt is as real to her as the love, maybe more so. Feeling something is what matters to her most.”

Ahna lowered her mental defenses enough to let me see how well she understood this.

“Where is Seiko anyway?” I asked.

“Sleeping in, I think. She was up late, roaming the halls.”

“You saw her?”

“She knocked on my door.”

“She did?” I said.

Ahna nodded. “I pretended no one was home.”

***

Seiko showed up with more beer and cake as my first helping ran out. From the way she swayed and stumbled as she made her way across the garage, I knew she had started on the beer long before she came to share any with Ahna and me. Seiko’s face, sallow and thin, lit up at the sight of her beloved. “They said I would find you here,” she said.

Seiko sank to the floor beside Ahna and she wore her emotions plain on her face. One dip into Seiko’s head revealed how she held herself unguarded for anyone to see, inviting Ahna to accept or deny her. Maybe it was the beer, or pressure from me, or plain inevitability that inspired Seiko’s uncharacteristic openness. Whatever the cause I sensed disaster was the imminent result. Such a terrible waste, I thought as I slipped into the shadows of my crate, watching Ahna and Seiko with my eyes and tuning into our shared transmission to observe them with my mind.

I muffled my connection so they felt alone, but listened to their thoughts like a child with a glass pressed against a wall. In Seiko’s opened thoughts I learned she had followed Ahna from job to job for years filled with pain, but also with hope. She wanted to forget the years that came before Ahna, the years after she outgrew tunnel diameter restrictions and succumbed to subsistence in the flesh parlors where she taught herself to be numb, to feel nothing. For a long time Seiko did forget, but hope wasn’t enough anymore. Like an addict who develops tolerance for her drug, she needed something stronger from Ahna, if she was to keep going.

Ahna broke the silence first. “I’ve known how you felt for a long time, Seiko. I thought if I ignored it your feelings would go away. I was afraid to hurt you.”

“You saved me,” said Seiko. “How is that not love? You took me away from that place, that nightmare.”

“I was acting on childish idealism. I had a savior complex. I thought if you had the chance, you could become something more than just a used-up breedling.”

“Before you I was superfluous trash. Without you, that’s still all I am.”

“You can’t give up, Seiko…for yourself…for Nanus.”

“Why? So I can do to her what you did to me? Lead her on for years with false hope.”

I sat up and cleared our line, listening with my consciousness, tuned and sharp.

“It’s different for her,” said Ahna. “Nanus knows.”

Seiko jumped to her feet and shrieked. “She knows what? That I don’t love her?”

I cried out in a voice that resonated with Seiko’s pain; my brain seethed with her agony.

“Seiko, stop it,” Ahna said, calm and deliberate. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Liar,” Seiko screeched. Reaching into my crate, Seiko jabbed a hand into my pocket and dragged out one of the silicoat stones she knew I always carried. Before either Ahna or I realized what Seiko was up to, she had jabbed the stone into her flesh and cut open her scalp; she wrenched out the Pilot chips and wires installed at the base of her skull.

Seiko flickered once in my mind and then popped like a soap bubble. Gone. Like our daily disconnect, but so much worse.

“What the hell?” Ahna said. “What are you doing?”

Still clutching her chips, Seiko’s fist dripped blood, plip, plip, plip, on the floor. “Nothing about this was ever real,” Seiko said. “Not even me.”

Seiko wobbled, took a step back, and caught herself on another breedling’s crate.

Ahna approached Seiko, hand outstretched. “Do you know what I had to go through to get that for you? To get you out of that place and make you a Pilot?”

Seiko flung the gruesome mess of blood and wires at Ahna so that it smacked her chest before slopping to the floor, leaving a red streak down Ahna’s shirt. “Before you came along,” said Seiko, “I denied the existence of love. But you brought me into this world that insisted it was possible, if I believed, if I tried, if I waited long enough. It is the grandest lie ever perpetuated, and I can’t believe I fell for it.” Seiko stumbled towards the garage door, gathered herself, and then disappeared around the corner.

Seiko! I cried for her in my thoughts, oblivious to the fact that she could no longer hear it. The place she once occupied inside me had distorted into a frigid abyss.

“I’m so, so sorry, Nanus,” said Ahana. She leaned down and peered into my crate. “But consider yourself lucky, little one.”

My only reply was a snuffled breath and hiccup of tears.

Ahna squared her shoulders and looked towards the exit. “You already know the truth. You won’t waste your life chasing a lie.”

I followed Ahna’s gaze. Only a few feet beyond the door, the concourse opened upon a universe of ocean. Through Ahna’s thoughts I knew it was vast, but at the same time growing smaller as people pushed farther and deeper, desperate to charter the unknown and define the boundless. “It’s not a lie,” I said. “My love for her is real.”

A bit about the author:

KB lives in North Carolina with her kid, her husband, the occasional in-law, and a very hairy husky. She loves to read and has a sweet tooth for speculative fiction. She is a first reader for Daily Science Fiction and she has published short stories at Daily Science Fiction, Everyday Fiction, and Stupefying stories. Visit author page