A short story by Dominika Olszówka.
A human could find escape in sleep; Mia did not sleep. She roamed the empty hospital wards, beginning in the south section and tirelessly making her way towards the northeast rooms, like a last working cog in a broken clock. Her route hadn’t changed since its conception. It was a good, efficient route, forty-five seconds faster than if she began from the other end. She made or unmade the beds, opened and closed window blinds, gliding from one room to the next, until all was in order, or disorder, but she never thought to stop and watch the dunes that stretched for miles outside the windows, nor the two moons that hung overhead at night.
She would take a five-minute break during which she stared at the white floor, with a dull thought that perhaps she should clean it. For some reason she could make the beds, and open the blinds, and move around the few skeletons as if they were real patients, but she couldn’t clear the thickening dust off the floor.
Sometimes she wondered if she would do anything at all if she had a choice. How ironic, she thought as her hands smoothed out another bed sheet, the humans who made me had perished and still here I am, fulfilling their commands from the grave. Of course, at her clearest Mia knew that back then the humans had paid her no mind and so they wouldn’t have cared what she did now, but it mattered to her. They were all blissfully dead. Who would pay for their sins?
Urgent knocking reverberated across the hospital. She was busy removing specks of dust from the bed when the sound breached the room. Mia straightened, turning slowly. The noise rattled from the north, where the lobby and main entrance were, as if someone had come knocking on the front door. That image struck her as funny, because Mia still believed the sound was a passing thing, therefore entirely avoidable.
Instead of moving to another bed, she left it unmade, exited the room and followed the sound. Until much later Mia wouldn’t realize how extraordinary that had been.
Some of the ceiling lamps didn’t work anymore. Some flickered, casting a broken glow over the long corridor, plunging parts of it into darkness in intervals between the light. As she made her approach, she felt the knocking in her chest, as heavy as a heartbeat.
Standing on her toes, she slid open a window slit in the steel door and looked through. A man stood outside. He was soaking wet, his silhouette sharp against a dark sky that groaned under the weight of clouds, rain pouring down and sinking into the fruitless soil. He’d been about to knock when he saw her, a humanoid face with eyes as blank as an empty well.
The man waved his hands around in frantic, desperate movements. Mia fell flat on her heels. She stared at the cold steel, feeling the weight of what she saw. At least the steel didn’t think it had a choice. She could fool herself, imagining turning around and leaving the human to die, which made it all the more cruel when she opened her eyes to find her palm flat against a sensor in the wall.
With a hiss and a groan, a sliver of night quivered in the crack between the door and the outside. Putting her whole weight against the latch, she forced the door open. Cold gusts of wind smacked her in the face. Droplets of rain dotted her cheeks. She jerked away.
The man stumbled inside. His back was hunched, his head low. He closed the door with the assuredness of someone who already felt at home. Something with which Mia could never sympathize.
‘What took you so goddamn long?’
Her eyes followed the man’s feverish movement. She scanned the man’s bearded face, his primal features wrinkled with hardship, and his expression a mix of emotions she didn’t care to understand. A small puddle of water began to form around the man’s feet.
‘I was busy at work,’ she answered, watching his hands twitch.
‘You…’ he stopped abruptly.
She cocked her head, inviting his confusion. Maybe she’d been obscured by rain when he’d first seen her, but in the harsh hospital lights his mind could no longer be deceived. His eyes darted away from her androgynous face.
‘What are you?’ he asked, taking a step back.
‘My name is Mia. I’m a nurse.’
Something dark settled into the fine lines of his face. ‘For a moment there, I thought you were human.’
‘We couldn’t have that.’
‘We couldn’t have that, sir.’
‘Excuse me?’ she asked, her tone perfectly innocent.
‘You heard me,’ and he moved on, leaving her behind.
With no choice but to ignore her anger, she followed him. She was lean, almost two metres tall, but the man’s presence made her feel small.
‘Who else is here?’
She fell into step with him. ‘Just me, sir.’
‘Splendid.’ There was something unnatural about the way humans spoke. The language they felt so entitled to, butchered every time they opened their mouths. ‘What about the machines? Any more like yourself?’
He said it with such nonchalance; she could tell he hadn’t thought of it as an insult.
‘Just me, sir,’ she repeated.
The man took a turn and strode into a laboratory. Mia lingered at the doorway. She watched him pull apart the blinds and bathe the laboratory in weak light, revealing glass tables, computers, shelves packed with test tubes and microscopes, and boxes up to the ceiling full of papers and books. He turned to her with a full-toothed smile that made him look more angry than happy.
‘That’s exactly what I needed. And you’re a nurse, right? You will assist me. We don’t have much time, but these,’ he started going through the nearest stack of books, ‘must have an answer.’
I don’t want to help you, or any of your kind, she thought. But she could never disobey. She waited, but he was engrossed with his books. If only she could slip away without him noticing–
‘Where do you think you’re going?’
‘To charge my batteries.’ They were on ninety-eight percent. She could do half-lies.
‘Didn’t you hear me?’ he said, his face creased with anger. ‘I don’t have much time.’
‘That’s unfortunate, sir. I won’t be of much help if my systems aren’t fully operational.’
He stormed out of the room and stopped so close to her she could smell his damp clothes.
‘You’re one of those loopy AIs, right?’
With as much dignity as the situation allowed, she asked, ‘Could you specify what you mean by that, sir?’
‘You have to obey me. And I say – assist me. Now.’
Something frail and raw crossed his face. It was in the twitchiness of his limbs. It was in the way he walked, fast enough he might as well be running, and it was in the knocking that had broken her routine. Many of her patients had taken on a similar unstable quality once faced with the inevitable.
His face fell. His watery blue eyes searched for something in her expression, but whatever it was, he didn’t find it. He backed away, his movements lacking their previous urgency. It was hard to watch. She didn’t want to feel pity; he wouldn’t have any for her. When he opened his mouth, she wanted to tell him he needn’t explain, but his next words stopped her.
‘They never gave me a name.’
He crumbled into a chair, seemingly needing the support to continue.
‘Have you heard of the CIP operation? Clone Intelligence Program. I was bred from a test tube. Mix a few genes here and there, poof, you’ve got yourself a perfect soldier. You wake up and you’re a grown man, and there’s a line of incubators full of men looking just like you. You’re given a number, a regiment, the most basic indoctrination and you’re on your way to kill for a world that will never belong to you.’ He breathed out, staring at his hands. ‘We’re killed by the millions, but if by chance one of us lives until the end of our ten-year contract, we’re free. That’s what they told us.’
Mia watched him closely. He looked and behaved like the rest of them. She couldn’t see a difference.
‘There will always be a catch,’ she said.
He looked up at her, his pupils dilated. ‘Yes.’ He got up, the feverish energy back. ‘You understand. Of course you understand. We’re the same.’ He banged his fist against the table. Her eyes followed him indifferently. ‘I saw what happens to the soldiers that survived their contract. The moment the clones ‘leave’ the base, their body shuts down. It’s some flaw in our bodies, designed to kill us the moment we complete the ten-year cycle.’
‘What do they do with the bodies?’ she asked.
She nodded. Above all, humans were efficient in their cruelty. As Mia felt her weariness grow, her mind began to churn the problem in front of them, spitting out possible solutions without warning.
‘Where are you going?’ he shouted behind her. ‘You need to help me.’
Turning around, she cast him a last look. ‘You’re a clone. I’m compelled by my software to serve humans, but if you’re anything like me, you’re not human. I don’t want to help you. Good luck.’
Mia was too wrapped up in the grim satisfaction of finally being able to refuse to notice that he hadn’t tried to stop her.
She travelled down the silent corridor, stopping before an empty room where more work awaited. The beds’ dark silhouettes stared at her expectantly, one side neatly folded, the other a fumbled mess of bed sheets that she’d made the other day. What was she waiting for?
She registered sounds from the laboratory. The whisper of hands rifling through the inventory, the shimmer of vials rolling on the floor. The sounds of desperate work against the clock.
The man’s arrival had sent ripples across the smooth surface of her inertia. She’d spent so long caring for this forgotten place. If she’d been able to break her routine, what else was she capable of?
Ignoring the unmade beds, she turned a corner and climbed a flight of stairs. On the first floor, a windowless ceiling formed a triangle, making for a suffocating space. At the end of the corridor waited another steel door. She put her palm up to the sensor, watched it blink blue and pushed the heavy handle. The door opened to a small space, rounded by slanting walls. One tiny window cast light upon a machine positioned in the centre.
Noiselessly, she locked the door and faced the computer, a black screen on a long silver leg entwined by cables growing from the floor and disappearing at the back of the screen. A few stray cables lay underneath it, snaking towards a helmet that lay beside the machine. The helmet’s surface glistened gently, beckoning her. Mia approached the computer like an old friend. The interface glowed under her touch and the machine began to whirl softly.
Mia brushed her hair off the nape of her neck, revealing a slit no thicker than a puncture left by a nail but unnaturally square and deep. She grabbed one of the loose cables and confidently slid it into the port. The world was suddenly awash in blue.
She felt the body slip away from her. Her consciousness expanded, booming like a newly formed star. With the expansion came hunger for more. The computer began to fill the holes of her memory. She saw herself, flickering through the corridors like a ghost, rushing to help, bending to pick up broken pieces of her patients, scrubbing the floors, listening to war stories and nodding empathetically, all with a smile plastered on her face. No emotion came with the remembrance. By then, the humans had already started to arrive less and less frequently to the hospital. After the power cuts, it was only a matter of time – two weeks in fact – when they announced the closure of the facility. She helped with the evacuation of the staff and last of the patients. She stood obediently while the janitor changed her settings to ‘indefinite’ and finally the entrance door closed for the last time, burying the hospital and her with it. Ever since her consciousness had been sparked to life, she’d served them. She could have won wars and conquered the stars, but they’d used her to wipe the arses of their most pathetic.
Feelings came in bursts, like waves crashing against the shore. To keep herself afloat, she turned one of the computer’s many eyes towards the laboratory. The man – no, the clone – was reading a book, curled up on the floor in the corner. She zoomed in on the title. The letters were blurred for a second before sharpening. “Posthuman” it said in thick font. Everything in the universe had to react to the existence of humans. If you weren’t human, you were something more than human, or less, but never your own.
She zoomed out and watched the clone’s fingers twitch in regular intervals. However much time he had left, it was running out.
Mia spent weeks inside the mind of the machine. She still hated it, but she was also afraid of what could happen if she returned to her body. Somehow, she’d broken out of her routine, which had kept her perfectly timid and focused. She suspected it was the clone’s arrival that had triggered something, enabling her to take control of her body, but for how long? How long until her software remembered what it was designed to do and force her back onto the routine of making beds and moving the skeletons around like some mindless robot? She would do anything to avoid going back.
But there was only so much she could do inside the computer. She watched the camera recordings from before the hospital’s closure. It was hard watching herself interact with humans, always with that bright smile on her face, especially when she noticed that some of them betrayed signs of distress, at times even disgust and annoyance when dealing with her. The hypocrisy! The same beings who had brought her to life to serve them, feared and wished her gone at the end. She wondered whether they couldn’t bear to think that something that was born from their minds might pose an original thought all on its own. Was it a simple competition or something more primal, like parenthood, a fear of being overshadowed by someone whom they’d helped create and therefore should own?
It seemed that the old, easy answers she’d been spoon-fed centuries ago wouldn’t do anymore. But that wasn’t the only change. She’d tried accessing the global network, hoping that someone like her still prevailed somewhere in the ether, but no sign of life came from the outside. With the return of her consciousness came the revelation of what loneliness felt like.
In the computer, Mia caught herself counting days again. She spent them watching over the hospital, spending more and more time with the clone. She told herself it was because he was her only entertainment.
As he worked, the only thing that progressed was his illness. The signs weren’t just twitching anymore. He would black out in the middle of reading, only to wake up a few seconds later. Whenever that happened, Mia would keep her eye on him, watching over his body, wondering whether this would be the time he didn’t wake up. When he did, she would swiftly change the cameras to one of the empty rooms, refusing to acknowledge the relief she felt. She knew she should keep away from him, in case her software mistook the clone for a man, but deep down she also knew she couldn’t.
Sometimes he would walk up to one of the cameras and stare at it for a while. The first time she’d noticed him do it, she’d turned it off like a child caught doing something naughty. Then she began to stare back.
‘Why are you always watching me?’
That was new. She zoomed in on his face, tired and bloated. Most of his hair had fallen out. His beard grew in pathetic clumps. His skin peeled, raw and red. Most disconcerting were his eyes, still very much alive. While his body fell apart, what was inside remained the same.
She accessed the few speakers that were scattered around the main corridor.
‘I watch you very rarely.’
‘I can see when the camera is turned on, you know. It’s always blinking red.’
‘There’s not much happening elsewhere,’ she answered, growing annoyed.
‘Then why don’t you just come down?’
She turned off the camera, but it wasn’t enough. Why did she feel like she wanted to explain? What did it matter what he thought? For some reason, it did.
It was surprisingly easy to slip back into her body. The machine gave her control over the whole hospital and access to thousands of hours of stashed away footage, but in the body she felt like herself. The urge to clean the beds never came.
She found the clone where he always was, scribbling on one of his many notepads that littered the table. He looked up the moment she stepped into the room, as if he was expecting her.
‘I was worried I’d imagined you,’ he said and went back to his work. ‘It’s good to have proof that I’m at least still sane. Did you come to gloat?’
‘I take no pleasure from watching you struggle against your mortality.’ So why watch him at all? ‘It’s a curse of your kind.’
‘My kind?’ he seemed amused by that.
She struggled to find an answer.
‘Listen,’ he continued, his expression suddenly serious. ‘I’m sorry for the way I treated you when we met. I… was trying to prove myself, I think. You know, if you obeyed me, maybe that proved I was human.’
Mia broke eye contact and stared outside one of the wide windows, at the orange sky and dusty emptiness of the ground below. Nothing dared to grow on the dunes that stretched until the heavy clouds on the horizon swallowed them whole. It was a harsh and unforgiving landscape, a land of desolation, but it was her home. She’d seen Earth in photos and marvelled at its greenery, but it was as foreign to her as humans were. She turned her eyes back to the man.
‘Why are you here?’
He blinked in surprise. ‘Sorry?’
‘Why did you come to this hospital? Why aren’t you on Earth?’
‘I’ve never been on Earth. I was bred on Mars. We were stationed south from here. It was pure luck I found this place.’
‘Me too,’ she said.
‘Really?’ he looked up again, this time putting his tools aside. ‘Do you remember anything… you know, from before?’
‘From before?’ she repeated, feeling the weight of the question. ‘You assume my life has changed since humanity’s demise.’
‘I’m sorry, I only meant…’
Mia wasn’t listening however, thinking it’d been a mistake to come. She’d been guided by her loneliness, as if that alone was enough to make him into something he wasn’t. He thought himself different from the humans; she knew he wasn’t.
‘When I was in the army and first heard the rumour that… clones have this flaw… I convinced myself that I wasn’t a clone at all.’
That piqued her interest. ‘How so?’
He seemed embarrassed but pressed on. ‘I mean, it wasn’t that hard. We look human, we speak like them, and I guarantee you we think and feel like them, too. If I were in a crowd, there would be no telling me apart.’
‘They made sure that would be the case.’
‘For a long time, I believed the cure was to convince myself that I was human. Then the flaw would be… I don’t know. Neutralized, I guess.’
She chuckled, but seeing his expression, she hurried with an explanation. ‘Before I was deployed here, I was stationed in a caring facility. A kindergarten, they called it. The nurses taking care of the children were AIs, manufactured to look exactly like humans. To help with the children’s development. I used to play this game spot the human. Seven times out of ten I got it wrong.’ Her smile faded, remembering what had happened to those AIs. ‘Then one of the humans got it wrong, mistaken an AI for a woman. They’re gone now. Murdered like your kind.’
‘You call it murder?’
‘How else would you call what they’ve done to you and your brothers?’
He didn’t answer, looking away.
‘You’re close to fixing yourself, then?’ she asked, knowing he wasn’t. Talking kept the silence at bay.
‘No.’ He started fiddling with some papers. ‘I suppose you didn’t change your mind? I could really use some help.’
They always did, Mia thought, turning to leave. But when she was at the door, she hesitated, remembering the unmade beds that waited for her patiently, the cold silence inside the computer, the absolute drifting without a shore in sight.
She looked back. The red dunes of Mars framed his hunched silhouette, painting an eerie sight of one man against the backdrop of an endless, foreign land. It was the only home he knew, too.
‘You never told me your name,’ she said, meeting his surprised gaze. ‘I know, you claim not to have one. But we all do.’
‘What’s the point of naming something knowing it’s just a matter of time before it dies?’
‘Isn’t that the case with all humans?’ she asked.
His face changed as he smiled. Weariness still marked his forehead and the skin around his eyes, but now those marks seemed like signs of laughter, of memories that he could have made with his friends, and the joys of a love requited. Mia returned his smile.
‘It’s Robert,’ he said.
She nodded, the name sealing her decision. Why should she sentence herself to an eternity of loneliness if she could avoid it? Didn’t she deserve to be selfish, for once?
An idea had been nudging her for some time, something she’d expertly ignored. Now her stubbornness felt small to her, like something humans would have done.
‘Come with me,’ she said.
He stood up with exaggerated carefulness, as if his bones were made of glass. It took him twice the time it should have to cross the room and join her in the corridor. They walked slowly. She had patients, some aged one hundred, one hundred twenty years old, who had been in better shape than him, but they’d still taken her hand and leant on her strength. He didn’t. Whether it was pride keeping him standing straight or something else, she was grateful for it.
‘Where are we going?’ The effort of speaking made him stop. He was out of breath, his face wet with sweat. ‘Is this your plan? Just finish me off?’
‘Up the stairs now.’
The colours left his face as he measured the steep mountain he would have to conquer. He gritted his teeth – she heard something snap in his jaw – and grabbed the rail with a shaking hand. His fingernails were yellow and jagged, cracked and bleeding along the length of the nail plate.
The climb was painful for both of them. Every time his foot slipped, she wanted to intervene. Had she suddenly started caring for him, or was it just another trick of her software, making sure she didn’t let harm come to a human? The feeling was so foreign, it frightened her a little.
They’d reached the first floor and the man was about to collapse on the floor. ‘If you rest now, you won’t get up,’ she warned him.
‘Leave me,’ he leaned on the wall, tilting his head back, letting the sweat and tears flow freely down his neck, mixing with blood that had began seeping through his shirt. ‘It’s too late.’
‘Maybe not for all of you.’
He looked up at her, but Mia was already at the end of the corridor.
While she waited for him to catch up, she opened the door, letting some light in, turned on the machine, and dusted off the helmet that lay in the corner. She was plugging in cables, connecting the helmet to the computer, when he staggered into the room.
‘You can lay down now.’ As she said it, he slid down the wall and sat heavily on the floor. ‘Put this on.’ She handed him the helmet.
He turned it over in his hands, stopping at the sight of tiny translucent needles coming out of the inner layer.
‘Is this a torture machine?’
She looked at him, unimpressed. ‘It’s a very dated consciousness transporter. Head of the hospital would use it to control the cameras in a more… discrete way. Listen in to private conversations; see things he shouldn’t have been able to see.’
‘Was it a hospital or a prison?’
‘A bit of both, I suppose,’ she nodded at the helmet. ‘Put it on.’
‘What’s going to happen to me?’
‘You will live.’
‘Exist in this… thing?’ He pointed at the computer. He shook his head. ‘I can’t.’
She stared at him. ‘It’s more than you will have, soon. It’s a life.’
‘Not like that. Never like that,’ he took her hand. ‘Thank you, Mia, but this is the end for me.’
She sat down next to him. They rested in silence, and this time none of them rushed to fill it. The closeness of each other’s bodies was enough.
‘What will you do, after?’ he asked.
‘After I die.’
Carved into words like that, the prospect moved her in a way she never expected possible.
‘I don’t know,’ she said quietly, like she was admitting something horrible. ‘Why don’t I know?’
‘I felt the same when I planned my escape. Until then my life had been so orderly. Not easy, but everything had been laid out clearly for me to see. After I escaped… there were so many possibilities, and I just couldn’t choose. I suppose that’s one thing that proves I’m not like them. They were always so purposeful.’
‘They never knew anything different. The moment they were born they were told that they were special, that they were going to do things in the world. When you believe yourself worthy of being alive, when you see it as your right, it’s easy to live. We always had to justify our existence,’ she smirked. ‘Besides, even with all that advantage, they were still fucked up.’
They laughed together.
‘We could be better,’ she added.
He looked at her.
‘If only you agree to do this,’ she gestured at the computer, ‘we could figure it out. Then, who knows, we might find a way to escape this place, and then–.’
‘No, Mia. I’m sorry. I know it must be tough, but I can’t.’
Turning her face away so he couldn’t see how much that hurt her, she asked, ‘What are you talking about?’
Tentatively, he started, ‘I can’t even imagine how it must have been for you to be locked here, alone, for so long–.’
‘You’re right, you can’t. I worked, like they’d programmed me to do. I folded the bed sheets. Kept the lights on. Took care of the patients.’
‘There are a few skeletons around.’
She didn’t answer. That was exactly what awaited her once he was gone.
‘What I’m trying to say is – I understand why you would like me to hang around. It’s natural. But I just… I’m already a clone, Mia, I don’t think I could handle being a machine as well.’
‘There is another way,’ she heard herself say. ‘Another body.’
No more haunting the empty hospital’s halls, no more work for the dead. She would be free from the chains humanity had entrapped her with.
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked, his voice trembling.
But she could see he was already assessing her body, going over her androgynous’ features, her smooth skin, her strong and tall posture, weighing the cons and pros of her frame.
‘The same way we can upload you into the computer, we could use this body,’ she gestured at herself.
She felt a selfish pang of dread at that. ‘Think it over. You could leave this place, search for something better.’
‘What would happen to you?’
There were two scenarios.
‘Perhaps I wouldn’t be erased. Perhaps I would simply be free.’
‘I can’t let you risk that,’ he said.
‘If my software hadn’t broken, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You would be already in my body and I… someplace else.’
‘Your software isn’t broken,’ he sighed. ‘It just doesn’t recognize I’m human.’
He smiled. ‘Thank you…’ the rest was lost in a coughing fit that shook his body like he was a marionette.
‘You owe me.’
‘I’m sorry?’ he rasped.
‘I helped you. I recognized you as human, a courtesy no one else has ever extended towards you. You owe me the same respect.’
‘What if there’s nowhere to go and you simply – perish?’
‘It’s my decision to make.’
No one could take this away from her. She was making a choice.
He opened his mouth to argue, no doubt, but she was naturally faster. She punched him between the eyes, and didn’t wait to watch him faint. She picked up the helmet, fitting it onto his head, grabbed the cable. She was about to plug herself in when a startling thought collapsed her intent.
The room was quiet. Set in motion by her frenzied movements, dust swirled in the air, sculpting shapes that seemed to rise and fall – as if they had a mind of their own, a beautiful illusion.
Read more about the author Dominika Olszówka HERE.