By Rachelle Harp
THE CIRCUIT IN MY RIGHT THUMB pulsed. A Skinner ship streaked across the WatchScreen, much faster than last time. I punched the target lock on the control panel, and a high-pitched beep answered.
Frowning, I ran a neural calculation. Bearing 270 mark 15. I grasped the manual firing stick, aimed, pressed launch. Nine point three seconds passed before the rocket exploded, leaving trails of Skinner shrapnel plummeting toward the ground. Bright orange flames smeared the sky. I tilted my head, and a smile crept in.
Pretty good shot.
I stepped out of the gun turret of Enforcement Command Base, feet clanking on the iron grate. Commander Parchs looked up from his data pad, wearing a pit bull glare that would ward off any grizzly. Not exactly the pleased face I had hoped for.
“Target neutralized, sir.” I saluted, trying to keep my hand steady. The carbon fiber wrapping my index finger grazed my brow.
“For now.” Parchs frowned, his faceplate skimming the left corner of his lip. Standard Mechanized Soldier implant. Fitted with digital eye scanner and cochlear amplifier. “Skinners always send two. Just a matter of time before the other one strikes. This one must have come early. Blown their surprise.”
“Skinners are not that sloppy.”
“No, Agent Marsh,” Parchs said, tone hollow. “No, they are not. Makes me wonder what those monsters are up to.”
The last Skinner ship to land on the Colony destroyed half the city. Women and children laid out on blood-soaked streets. Stripped of all their implants. Not a pretty business. I pulled my shoulders back. “I’ll keep my eye open for the next wave, sir.”
“Not necessary.” He dismissed me with a single hand flick as though repelling a mosquito.
A strange feeling rooted in my chest. Didn’t I just fire the shot, exploding an enemy target? Why wouldn’t I be cleared for alert duty? My jaw cracked open and before I could stop them, the words tumbled out. “I can take the RADAR, sir. I have manned it before.”
“Officer Deven has it covered.” Parchs was cool and calm. Only the press of his thin lips showed a hint of irritation. “First team will take over from here.”
“Sir, I have the skills—”
“I’m aware of your skills, Agent. We all get a lucky shot once in a while.” He gazed at me through eyes of one patronizing a child. “Like Epsilon 5.”
My last flight mission. A day I wish I could forget. We had a clear shot on a Skinner ship. Confirmed the coordinates myself, but accidentally reversed the last two digits. When our gunner fired, the missile veered off-target. The enemy fighter miscalculated his defensive maneuver, rolled right into the stray missile. Lucky shot for the gunner but ended in reassignment for me.
Parch’s held up his data pad. “There’s been a break-in reported at the West Colony Medical Plaza. Doesn’t look too serious. One man job.”
“Patrol duty? I haven’t done that in months.” I tried to mask the disdain in my voice.
“Make it fast.” Parchs grunted. “We don’t have time for these petty tasks. Mechs with programming failure are a waste. Take care of it.”
Sure, this was about as low a job as you could get in Enforcement. Next step, kitchen duty. I stood still, hoping he was joking. “Sir, I—”
“Dismissed, Agent Marsh.” His tone tightened, warning me I could be held for insubordination. Parchs hit the comm. “First alert team, stand ready.”
The high alert signal wailed, echoing the frustration clambering in my chest. A dozen Enforcement officers bombarded the room and launched into their drills. Defensive stations. Target calculations. Weapons prep. Parchs turned his back on me as he barked orders at some Mech with more skin than parts. Must be a newbie. What would he know?
I ducked out of the command center, fists clenched, Parch’s voice booming over the mechanical hum in the tunnel. My finger traced the circuits of my cybernetic arm, cold and stiff. Skinners didn’t have implants. They took with their bare hands. An emotional frenzy of adrenaline and kill fever set in.
For half a second, I wished I knew what that felt like.
Five broken beakers littered the tile floor. A dozen vials, liquid flowing. Three boxes of gauze. Hardly enough to medicate a unit. What had the perp been looking for? I scanned the medical facility. More mess.
A glass bottle shattered on the tile. I spun around. No one in sight. Did he find the exit?
I lifted my wrist, punched the communications button. “Enforcement Command, Agent Marsh at 229 West Colony Medical Plaza. Requesting back up.” Better to make sure he doesn’t double back.
“Understood,” a mechanical voice answered.
The perp couldn’t be far. I tapped my laser eye, scanned a detailed map of the crime scene. In the far corner. There. Was that a gasp? Mech implants were fine-tuned to catch these details.
A sudden clang of metal rattled through the room.
“Show yourself.” I leveled the blaster in my right arm implant in the direction of the sound.
A bottle whizzed past my ear. I let one shot loose.
From the corner, a small figure darted behind a medical table. I leapt to the left, anticipating the next move. In one swift motion, my arm sprung forward and scooped the perp up by her shirt collar. “Who are you?”
“Let me go, Mech.” The girl thrashed. I held firm.
“What are you doing here?”
She kicked my leg but shrieked in pain the instant her foot hit the metal prosthesis. I dropped her to the floor, cuffed her. Strange how her skin was warm like the sun. I shoved the pistol to her forehead. “What were you looking for?”
The girl flashed the kind of glare Parchs wore on a bad day. “Mechs are all the same. Don’t know nothing about compassion.”
Couldn’t be more than eighteen or nineteen. Face as smooth as silk. No implants anywhere on her body. Not even an eye patch. To live in the Colony without implants? Utter madness.
“Where are your implants?” My tone sharper, more threatening.
There was something disturbing in her eyes as if she were afraid of something, but it wasn’t me. No way she would betray her Protectors, criminals that they were. Colony law stipulates the Mechanization process begin on a child’s first birthday, and be enhanced through adulthood. I’ve heard of the Underground, rebel sympathizers who believe in humanity over technology, but I’ve never seen one in real life before. The question is, did they find her this way, or did they help her stay this way?
“If you are part of the invasion fleet, your ship has been destroyed.”
She scoffed. “I’m no invader.”
“Then what are you?”
“A colonist, like you.”
“Skinners are not like us.” I straightened my shoulders. My skin expanded against the carbon fiber hull around my chest. Flesh plus mechanization. Strength over weakness.
“I only came for this.” She opened her palm, revealing a blood-red vial.
I took the bottle. “If you needed medical supplies, why not let your Protectors find them?”
“They can’t help if they’re dead.” She lifted her chin.
Even through matted chunks of hair and a fierce glare, she was fascinating. Why would she choose a life without technology? Mere weakness. Unproductive at best.
“Stand up.” I stepped back, flicking my hand in an upward motion. She eyed me carefully, a mouse staring at the trap. Slowly, she stood, pulled her shoulders back.
She seemed tough, at least acted like it. I could break her with my two hands. No need for the gun, but I held it steady. A trace of vulnerability in her eyes. Fascinating.
“I’m no threat to you.” She lowered her voice, not a thread of menace. “Give me the vial, and you’ll never see me again.”
“Tell it to the commander.”
“He won’t listen. He’ll turn me into one of you, end up killing me instead.”
I rolled the vial in the palm of my hand. “He will treat Skinners how they deserve.”
“No one ever deserves torture.” Her words creaked out, a rusted hinge. She was beautiful, untainted. No sharp teeth or fighting stance. Probably never killed a bug, let alone a Mech.
I lowered my gun.
She was no Skinner.
Only a glitch in the system.
There was no time to deal with a non-threat. Not when real Skinners would be here any moment.
No one would notice a missing medicine vial. “Hold out your wrists.” Make this fast, before I change my mind.
She looked up, jaw hanging. I uncuffed her. Warm skin, not cold like the others.
“Go before the others get here.”
Wide-eyed, she glanced around the room as if bracing for the firing squad. In a whisper, she said, “My name is Eden.” She scurried toward the door.
What else was Parchs hiding? Are there other colonists evading Mechanization?
Eden paused by the door, looked over her shoulder and nodded. Two Mechs appeared on the other side of the glass.
“Watch out!” I lifted my gun, ready to fire.
Eden ducked, but not in time. There were no shots. The Mechs were faster. Within three seconds, they apprehended her.
Agent Trace cuffed her, motioned for the other Mech to take her away. “Can you believe that? She’s human. A Skinner in real life. Did she come from the invasion fleet?”
“I don’t know.” My tone flattened. “She wouldn’t say.”
Why did I let her go? Did Trace wonder why I didn’t shoot?
Trace leaned closer, narrowed eyes betraying his thoughts. “Good thing you called for backup.”
I thought of nothing but Eden as I typed up my report. Green eyes pleading for help. The warm sun of her skin against mine. Soft flesh, untarnished by circuitry. Yet, she functioned in every way. And her mouth definitely worked up to speed, curses and all, as she had tried to escape the other officers.
I hit submit and leaned back in my chair. A squeak echoed through the Patrol Office, empty except for me and rat-faced Abreyy. His high-pitched voice got under my skin. On a normal day, Agent Trace would be at his desk beside mine, joking about something as half a dozen others flitted around. But the Skinner alert had everyone on edge. First team was still on duty. The rest were stationed at posts around the colony—watching, waiting.
Except me and Rat-face.
Strange thing is, I’ve been preparing for this day my entire life. Trained, ready to kill those monsters. We left the Skinner home world years ago to colonize this planet, escape their persecution.
And I can’t get free of Eden’s face.
“You ever see a Skinner before?” Abreyy’s voice whistled from the cubicle across the aisle.
“In pictures, like everyone else,” I said in a flat tone.
“No, I mean for real.”
“Where would I have seen a real Skinner?” No way I was telling him about Eden.
“My friend on Base 9 says they captured one a month ago. Top secret like. He saw the ship.”
“I never heard about any ship. Your friend must be lying.”
Abreyy sat up, shoulders rigid. His voice squeaked out higher. “He lies about a lot of stuff, but not this. Said its teeth were razors and its eyes hold you in a trance before striking out with its claws. Skins you alive.”
“Your friend saw all this happen?” I arched my brow. “And told you?”
“Well, no ... not actually saw the Skinner. But his partner told him about it.”
I turned back to the computer screen. “Maybe your friend should quit telling fairy tales and do his job.” I pressed random buttons on the keyboard, pretending to look busy.
“They tried to Mech the thing, turn it to our side.” Abreyy cranked up his best bragging voice, as though he had witnessed the whole incident. “Once they’re full grown, it’s too late. The process didn’t take and the monster ended up a pile of skin and circuits ... after they put it down.”
“I’ve heard that one before. You’ll have to come up with a better tale next time.” Is that the kind of torture Eden talked about? Would they try to Mech her? I shuddered, hoping Abreyy didn’t see.
The door swished open and footsteps clinked on the metal grate floor. “Marsh!”
Didn’t need to turn around. Parchs. I jumped up. “Yes, sir.”
“Your orders went through thirty minutes ago. Why are you still here?”
“Just finishing my report on the Medical Facility break-in.”
Parchs grunted. “So, you saw the Skinner, did you?”
If she was a Skinner, she didn’t fit the profile. No fangs and horrifying blood dripping from her hands. No impulse to kill me on sight. Eden’s vulnerable eyes and softness—hardly the vision of a monster. I nodded anyway.
Parchs’s eyes scoured me. I resisted the urge to tap my pocket and make sure the medicine was there. If Parchs knew I had it ... well, it wouldn’t be pretty.
“Change of orders.” Parchs clucked his tongue, still wearing his snake face. “You’ll stay here in case the administrators have any questions about your report. Monitor SkyCam and relay any abnormality. That is all.”
I clicked my heels, fists clenched. SkyCam was lower than patrol duty. “Yes, sir.”
Parchs marched out but paused to look over his shoulder at me before he left. As soon as he was out of sight, I exhaled the pent up air and tapped my pocket.
Abreyy let out a slow whistle. “You said you never saw a Skinner before.”
I spun around and lowered my voice. “You heard right.”
Eden crouched in the corner of the cell, arms hanging over her knees. Had they scheduled her Mechanization? Or were they waiting until the invasion cooled off? Priorities or something like that. Maybe I still had time to find out why she was different. Or maybe get me the chance to catch another glimpse of her pristine face.
She didn’t look up when I stopped in front of the cell door. “Come to gloat?”
“Why would I do that?”
Such a strange creature.
“You got what you wanted.” Her voice was raw, low. “Captured. Locked me up. What else is left?”
“That’s not what I wanted.” I curled my fingers around the bars, the metal casing on my right arm clanked as it hit the steel. “Why did you give me the medicine if you thought I was going to be like the rest of them?”
Her eyes opened a window to her desperation. “I had to try. There was no other chance.”
“How sick is the one you need to help?”
“Sick. Dying. She’s already dead. Does it really matter at this point?” Eden wrapped her arms around her knees and rested her chin atop them. “If you’re not going to take it, no one else will.” Her eyes glistened. She wiped her hand across them. A sight I hadn’t seen since I was a child. It was a little strange, I had to admit.
The last time was the day my brother was taken away for his Mechanization process. Tobin had been so proud and excited, bounced with every step his pudgy toddler feet carried him. But something went wrong and he never came home. Didn’t take to his implants, mother had said. I cried that day, but she scolded me.
“Emotion is not for the Mechanized.” Mother spoke in that scolding voice she reserved for serious infractions. “Never cry again.”
And I didn’t.
As Eden covered her eyes, another tear escaped. Pain from that day flooded back, fresh, like a bad dream. She was so fragile. So human really.
“You must care for this person a great deal.” My tone softened.
“I will take the medicine for you.” At least I can try to save her, though I failed with Eden. And Tobin.
Eden sat up, shoulders straight. “Seriously?”
“Where is her location?”
“Why would you do that?” She narrowed her eyes, a spider poised to protect her prey. “What guarantee do I have that you won’t tell the others? That you aren’t toying with me?”
“You have none.” For a moment, a flicker of the memory passed through me—Tobin’s small hands that reached for my toys, his tousled hair after we wrestled, his gurgled laugh at my made-up stories. My eyes closed and lips turned down. “I had a brother I cared about long ago. He is no longer here, and I would not wish that on anyone.” I felt her hand rest on mine, warmth in this cold place. She squeezed. I didn’t reject her offer. My pulse sped up.
“Shop 2934 on the east side. The owner wears early model Mech parts and walks with a slight stoop. Calls himself Garder. Give it to him and tell him my name. He’ll know what to do with it.”
Eden dropped my hand. The cold returned.
A strange feeling surged inside, prodding me to tell more. If only I could take her with me, forget what I really was. But the squeak of my knee joints reminded me of the truth. I was not like her. But I wished I could be. Holding my breath, I reached into my pocket, knuckles tightening around the vial as though it were Eden’s hand.
“She’s your sister.” I said, matter-of-fact, no guessing. The only logical explanation.
Eden nodded, eyes hopeful.
“I will do as you’ve asked.”
For Eden. For Tobin.
The Skinner ship hovered in the orange sky. Black wingtips, iron beak, laser turrets pointed at the atmospheric protection generators. Another ship descended above the Colony Capitol Building. Five of our smaller, less armored, fighters streaked overhead. Another half-dozen spit useless shots at the mammoth invaders.
A purple neon sign flickered in the window of Shop 2934. Plain facade. No fancy ornaments. Only big windows on either side of the entrance door and a sidewalk stacked with concrete blocks. The shop hid out in the outer district, barely inside the protective atmosphere of the Colony’s bubble.
Would this Garder turn me in? Think he was being set up? Only one way to find out. I clamped the vial in my palm and stepped onto the street. Engines roared in the sky. Two more Skinner ships unfurled their wings. A shudder ripped through me. Not because I was afraid, but because I couldn’t help but wonder what the Skinners must be like. Were they like Eden, soft and beautiful? Or like Abreyy’s hideous monsters?
Only a traitor would even think the question.
As I stepped closer to the shop, a strange smell flooded the air. Smoke? I jogged down the sidewalk. Smoke intensified. A loud explosion ripped the air. Glass windows shattered, hurtled in a thousand directions. I hit the deck, shielded my eyes. When the glass rain ceased, I dropped my hands. Flames stroked the outside walls as the shop’s innards were consumed by a ball of fire.
I scanned the sky for Skinner ships, but none were close enough to hit the shop. I stood and brushed the dirt from my chest. The medicine bottle was safe, cradled in the palm of my right hand.
Garder. Was he inside?
I sprinted closer, heat lapping my cheeks. Smoke scratched my throat, and I coughed. Sweat scoured my face. My laser eyes scanned for movement through the window, but only detected fire.
If he was in there.
How? Or better yet, who?
Near the alley, the grate of metal feet clanked. Two Enforcers emerged, backs to me. I didn’t have to see their faces to recognize them—Deven and Abreyy. Parchs must have listened to Eden and me. I raised my arm pistol, ready to fire, but paused. Neither turned around. No, that was not my way. If I shot them like that, I’d be no better than the supposed monsters we were fighting. I lowered my arm as they turned down the next street, disappearing.
The shop was a cavern of flames. Smoke clawed my nose, and I coughed, gasping for fresh air. I stumbled into the street and bent over.
Would Parchs kill me?
Would he kill Eden next?
I shoved the bottle in my pocket. There was only one way to find out.
A wide-eyed Eden stared at the ceiling, as though she could see what was happening out there. I knocked out three guards getting in.
“Skinner invasion fleet,” I said, grit in my voice. “Two ships already here, more on the way.” And more guards on their way.
She looked at me and her lips paled. “How many more?”
“Could be dozens. I’m not sure.”
Was she afraid of the Skinners? Did she fear they’d hurt her, even though she was just like them?
“Can you hear what’s going on, how close they are?”
“Parchs severed my communications link.” I slapped my hand around the steel bar with a little more force than intended. The clank echoed through the cell block. “Can’t hear a thing.” Strange to hear silence through the earpiece instead of the usual drone of voices. The walls vibrated as a ship buzzed nearby, but there was no way to tell which side it belonged to.
Eden sat on the edge of her cot and wrapped long, thin fingers around her shoulders. “Did you get the medicine to my sister?”
I pulled the vial from my pocket, let my knuckles squeeze the glass for a few seconds. “A Mech Enforcement patrol got there first.” I paused. “Burned the place down. I don’t know if your friend was in there or not.”
“How did they know?” She jumped up, her voice floating in the higher register. “Who did you tell?”
“No one, I swear.” Her eyes were so beautiful, so innocent. I wanted to hold her and tell her everything would be all right. But I would be lying. “Must have bugged the cell. It’s my fault.”
She hung her hands through the cell door bars, dark hair tracing the curves of her cheeks. “No. I should’ve thought of that, too.” Without warning, Eden took my hand. Her skin was smooth against my palm, the only part of my hand free of circuits, free to feel the real world. “They’ll come for you.”
“I know.” I didn’t tell her they were probably on their way. With the confusion surrounding the invasion fleet, I’d found a short window of opportunity. A window that was shrinking.
“You should go.”
A door swung open behind us, and footsteps hit the metal grate. “Get back,” I whispered, pulling my hand free. “The guard.”
Eden pulled her hands into the cell and I crept to the nearest wall, leaning into a narrow shadow. Not sure what my plan was, but I couldn’t let them hurt her. Not after what they did to the old shopkeeper’s place. I raised my arm, ready to strike, but the guard never came.
Eden rattled her cell door and yelled, “Hey, you!”
“What are you doing?” My voice was a frayed whisper. I waved my hand to quiet her, but she pulled her lips into one of those I’ve-got-a-plan smiles.
“What’s going on out there?” she yelled again, louder this time.
“Quiet down,” the guard said. He marched through the doorway. I pulled my arm back and punched him in the jaw. He fell to the ground, unconscious.
“Lucky hit.” Eden rattled the door. “Get his key.”
The guard lay on the ground. Out cold, but I shuddered. The cautious part of me, the collective mind, wanted to stay where the predictable would happen. Parchs would arrest me.
Fleeing the colony—is survival even possible?
And facing Skinners.
As I watched the guard’s laser eye flicker, I knew the truth. Parch’s would decommission me. Fancy words for termination.
I can never return.
My gaze latched onto Eden’s. A fresh wave of hope flooded me. I didn’t want to die. Eden was full of life, seemed unafraid. How did it feel to be like her? To be with her? I snatched the key card. One quick swipe and the cell gate swung open.
“Come on.” Eden grabbed my hand. I squeezed tight, stealing as much warmth as I could. “I know a place we can hide. It’s not far from my sister. How do we get out of here?”
We ran through the back corridor, alarms rattling outside. As soon as we were out of the Enforcement Center, we looked into the sky. Hundreds of black silhouettes stained the clouds.
The invasion fleet had arrived.
Shots fired overhead.
Mech ships were fast, but no match for the mammoth Skinner ships. A small fighter darted under the hull of one beast, but a laser turret awaited it. An explosion ripped the fighter’s metal wings off. The carcass corkscrewed toward the Colony surface.
Something was buried in Eden’s eyes. Fear? Did she know what would happen? She gripped my hand. “If we get separated, go to east block, Shop 1927. Tell the shop owner Eden sent you. Show him the medicine. He will take you to my sister.”
“Don’t talk like that. We’ll make it.” I smiled at her. The first time since we met. It felt good, refreshing. Her desire for freedom was catching. We could make it, start a new life, far away from here. My heart raced. My palms sweated beneath my circuits.
Across the courtyard, officials corralled citizens off the street. Some of the children cried. Their mothers prodded them along, not offering comfort. One little boy who only had Mech facial implants installed reminded me of Tobin with his scruffy hair and pudgy arms. The boy fell down and skinned his knee. When he touched the blood flowing down his leg, he screamed. An officer jerked him up by the elbow and hauled him to the nearest truck. I looked away.
“Through here,” I whispered, pulling Eden toward the alley. “We’ll go around them.”
“But the shop is that way.”
“We can’t risk it. They’ll capture us. Hurry.” As we bolted into the alley, I glanced back. An officer pointed at us and whistled, attracting the attention of half a dozen others. “Run!”
We had a head start, but Eden’s unaltered legs couldn’t run as fast. I slowed to keep pace with her. Shots from the air battle echoed through the alley. My muscles pulled tight, but I pressed on. As we neared the end of the alley, another peek behind confirmed the Mechs were gaining ground. Wouldn’t be long now.
Eden panted, sweat glistening on her cheeks. I checked my pulse monitor. Still within normal parameters. We turned right, headed toward the outer district. A crowd of citizens buzzed the street, blocking a clear path.
“We’ll have to go around.”
Eden nodded, her face strained. “I can make it.”
“Good.” Impulsively, I brushed her cheek with my fingertips. Her skin was soft. She smiled as though she wanted to say something, but metal feet clanked behind us.
She nodded toward a clear spot next to a concrete wall. “Over there.”
We skirted the crowd, shoved past a couple of children, and squeezed by a car parked too close to the wall. I jumped on the car roof, then atop the wall.
“Here.” I held out my hand.
She leapt onto the car, copying my steps, then grabbed my hand. In one swift motion, I pulled her into my arms. We dropped to the ground on the other side, straight into some kind of park. Red boulders instead of trees. A crooked walking path around an artificial reservoir. Acres of shrubs and dust as far as my eye could scan.
Did the Mechs see us? I couldn’t be sure.
“The outer district is this way.” I set Eden down, breaking my link with her, and jogged a few steps ahead.
“Slow down,” Eden spit out between pants.
“They’ll catch up.”
“Then they catch up.” Her tone desperate now.
I searched for a concealed path, but there was none. Metal hitting concrete clanked behind us. “Put your arm around me.”
“Just do it.”
She held her arm just out of reach. “I can run.”
“But not fast enough.”
Eden turned around. The soldiers were less than ten yards away. Her jaw tensed and she swung her arm over my shoulder. I scooped her up and ran as fast as I could, though the added weight prevented me from reaching optimal speed.
Eden felt good in my arms. She leaned her head against my neck, her hair soft on the open parts of my skin. Was that her heart beating close to my chest? As I carried her through the park, the sky littered with ships, the sun warm on top of us, I’d never felt more alive in all my life.
And I didn’t want to give that up. Not for anything.
The path narrowed, one branch curving around the reservoir, another snaking off toward a maze of boulders. I slowed my pace. Ahead, a second group of Mechs charged toward us. The chase group was nearly on us.
“Let me down.” Eden’s pitch raised and she pushed against my chest. “You’ll never make it with me.”
“I won’t leave you.”
“You have to.” She slipped through my grasp and hopped to the ground.
“Eden!” I reached after her, unable to hide the creak of desperation in my voice.
She ducked under my arm and sprinted toward the boulders. I could catch her—she was only a few steps ahead. But a shot fired over my shoulder, barely cleared my neck. I hit the ground and let loose three bullet replies. Two Mechs fell, leaving only three chasers, who split off to hunt for Eden, the easier prey. I fired after them but missed.
Ahead, the second unit was right on top of Eden. I jumped up and ran as fast as I could. Eden had reached the perimeter wall and jumped for a jutting brick. What was she doing? She can’t climb that high. My heart whirred—too fast—ready to break out of my chest.
One of the Mechs dropped to his knees and aimed his rifle.
My arm shook as I raised it to counter his move. His shot fired first, and Eden fell to the ground.
“Eden!” I ran to her side and took her in my arms. Her limbs were motionless, blood soaked her chest. Her hair fell loose across her face. With gentle movements, I pushed the strands back, let my hand linger on her cheek. Tears slid down like they did the day my brother died, but I did not stop them. Hollowness filled my chest again, more intense, more open. And there was a new feeling, one I’d never felt before. One that erupted out of me. The tension grabbed my insides and squeezed violently.
The Mech responsible marched up and pointed his rifle at me. “Stand down.”
There was no purpose for her death. Why?
Gently, I laid Eden’s body on the ground and stood. Before the soldier had time to react, I stepped to the right and rolled forward, dodging his aim. As soon as I was underneath him, I leapt up and punched his jaw with a swift uppercut. In less than a second, I freed his gun from his hands and hit him with the butt. The others swooped in, and I fired half a dozen shots. Two fell like shattered glass, the third took two shots. Another half-dozen closed in. I gazed at Eden’s body and knew what she would have wanted. I jumped the wall and ran as fast as my mechanized legs could go. I had one chance to make things right.
And that’s what I intended to do.
The shop was on the corner of Omega and 5th. The owner was in the back, tinkering with some gadget. I clanked across the concrete floor. The place was empty, just a bunch of second-hand furniture, and shelves full of relics from the past. Vases, plates, clocks, musical instruments. All the things that reminded us of Earth. The things we had no use for anymore.
The man’s gray hair flowed past his ears. His circuits looked like they were from the original mechanization movement. Big, old, bulky. Not sleek like the newer implant units.
“Can I help you?” He coughed twice as he looked up from the object he was working on. Gold gears glimmered under fluorescent light.
I stood in front of the counter, fingers wrapped around the medicine bottle. “I am here for Eden.”
“Eden? Don’t know anyone named Eden.” His tone was flat as he fumbled with the gadget, avoiding my eyes.
I took his hand and placed the medicine in the palm of his hand. “She sent me just the same. Told me to give you this. Said you would know what to do with it.”
The man fingered the vial, then looked me in the eye, a gaze mixed with understanding and caution. “Ahh, yes. I do seem to recall that name, vaguely.” He shoved it in his pocket and picked up a screwdriver.
I expected some kind of reply or some kind of information, but nothing. Maybe he was afraid this was a trap of some kind. I walked to the door, looked up at the sky full of Skinner ships, unsure what they would do to us. Or if this guy really knew Eden.
“If you see her,” the old man said lowering his voice, “tell her I’ll do as she asks.”
I turned around and hesitated before answering. “Can’t do that. She’s dead.”
The man’s cheeks paled, and he dropped the screwdriver. Looked like some kind of ghost or something. “Skinners?”
“No. The Mechs.”
He nodded, tears glinting his eyes, then shuffled toward a curtain covered doorway.
“She was important to you?”
His shoulders shriveled. “She was my daughter.”
Somehow, I was not surprised. They had the same eyes, though his were filled with more pain. “But she was so different than everyone else. How did she survive without implants?”
Tears traced his lower lids. “We’re all Skinners underneath these contraptions. It’s what we were meant to be. I just didn’t have the heart to do to her what they did to me.”
He shuffled away, not hiding his sobs. Was it possible Eden’s sister was like her as well? I wouldn’t know. He disappeared behind the curtain, and I was left alone. But instead of coldness filling my chest, a strange warmth grew. I had no word to pin on it, but it was like touching Eden again.
Outside the shop, our tiny fighters looked like flies swatted away with laser bolts. I watched from under the covered awning for some time, maybe thirty minutes, an hour. I wasn’t sure. When the last fighter dove toward the ground, the Skinner ships ceased firing.
I ran my fingertips over the circuits of my mechanical arm. For the first time, I wondered what it would be like to be free of the wires and silicon. To feel the wind against the back of my arm, to run with the pull of muscles rippling down my freed legs.
With chin lifted to the sky, I knew the answer was all above.
Rachelle Harp has been published in “Havok Magazine” and the “2nd & Starlight”
anthology. She is a Writers of the Future Contest Finalist, and a novelrocket.com Launch Pad Novel Contest grand prize winner.