We Are Still Feeling
by Karen Bovenmyer
Outer perimeter breached. Stop.
Nicht and Onyango zeroed. Stop.
Machines coming. Stop.
Request evac. Stop.
Machines coming. Machines coming. Machines coming.
“Stop,” I say, smoothing Asya’s braids back from her forehead and tucking them behind her ear. They are greasy with fear-sweat and worse and leave an oily residue on my fingers. “That’s enough.”
The last mobile member of my ten decem, Asya, my translator, holds the com strands gently in her long, brown fingers. The pink cuticles of her nails have only just started to gray—she has another week, maybe two, before her nails fall out. Her eyes are burnt up, but her hearing and sense of touch are still excellent. We wait together for Command’s answer to come stuttering down the filaments, the faint clanging of the machines battering the outer door echoing inside the bunker like a metal heartbeat.
I’m no great shakes at waiting, never have been, and we dropped to this bunker to gather intel, so that’s what I want to do, not wait here to be found and killed like rats in a barrel.
I dip my fingers back into the brain jar, knuckles tingling as cold gray matter slides past them, and use the former empath’s power to boost out to the distant remains of my decem. Nicht is dark, but Onyango, though he’s been zeroed to a limbless trunk, still has eyes, so I look through them. Two scout machines work over the access door, jackhammering with precision. Nicht is bones and smoking char beside them and I see Onyango’s left boot and shattered shin on the ground nearby. Onyango moans under my continued invasion as we become one, and one of the robot scouts—a former auto-assembler now fitted with the control module we were sent to retrieve—stops jackhammering. The last thing we see through Onyango’s eyes is the business end of Scout Two’s pounder. I pull out before we feel it pulp his face. Only Asya and me, now—and neither of us has the intel on the machines’ plans that Command wanted.
“Kummer, are we zeroed?” Asya’s vocals still work, too. She sounds younger than she looks. She was about thirty when she died but she sounds like a teen. Sometimes they regress like that when awakened. Empaths can only raise people we’ve known in life—people we had a personal connection with. Using another empath’s brain in a jar to make lovers and family and friends and coworkers get up and serve makes humans like me useful—even after we’re dead. How many lovers’ bodies do I have left before I’m jarred? Does it even matter?
“Not yet.” I try to make the lie hopeful. We have maybe five minutes before the scouts get through. There isn’t jack or shit Command can do in that time—at least the scouts haven’t found and severed the bio-fibers so we still have coms.
As if summoned by that thought, the strands move. Asya jumps in her chair—I feel her surprise from the sudden twitching of the filaments resting in her hands—and repeats Command’s answer back to me.
Do not drop your puppets. Stop.
Decem Tray incoming. Stop.
Preserve the jar at all costs. Repeat.
Preserve the jar. Stop.
“See, it’ll be all right,” I tell her, and her shoulders relax because she always believes everything I tell her, because she’s not really Asya, but only the memory of her. But I don’t hear the rotors of a stripped-to-analog CH-47 Chinook helicopter dropping in a decem like the one that brought us—I only hear the clanging of the machine’s scouts on the door. Anything digital the machines own, much like we own the dead and the bio-filaments grown to communicate with the head puppeteer at Command—the Queen Empath, surrounded by her legions of dead. I slide my other hand into the jar and reach, focusing to push my range to the wavering, migraine edge. There is nothing dead but Asya in range, no other decem of ten with a puppeteer and her jar. “Tell them I’ve got nothing.”
The clanging intensifies, then stops with a mighty squeal of protesting metal. The scouts are in. We have maybe a few more minutes as they move tactically down the tunnels and find us.
“Take me.” Asya drops the Command filaments. “Fight with me. Preserve the jar.” She reaches blind, dead hands to me, as if she can pull me into her, instead of the other way around.
I don’t want to. Instead, I want to smooth my ex-lover’s braids back from her forehead again and kiss it lightly, but I grip the gray matter with both hands and push my consciousness into her. What is left of Asya is so light—the long-forgotten taste of lemons on the back of my tongue. She’s someone who should have lived. We become one.
We need to use my eyes, Kummer’s eyes, because Asya has none, so our movements are awkward and uncoordinated. We pick up the cannon that’s too big for either of us to use safely, slip Asya’s skinny arms through the straps, and tighten the chest harness. We station ourselves in front of the door, wedging our small body inside a metal locker to moderate the kickback, so we can fire until our meat gives out. We put Kummer’s body as far from the door as possible, behind a big metal desk resting on edge. It is the best cover we can find.
The pounding on the interior hatch starts. Dirt and dust shower down from seams in the metal bunker we never realized were there. We make sure the ammo belt is clear for Asya’s feed so we can fire and fire and fire until there is nothing left.
The filaments twitch on the floor, but there is no translator to tell us what Command is saying. We want to say:
Bunker taken. Stop.
Kummer and Asya zeroed. Stop.
Stop. Stop. Oh God. Stop.
The scouts break through, and we let rip with the cannon, screaming, Asya’s too-young voice and mine, Kummer’s, twining until the cannon crushes our lungs and we can’t use Asya’s air, so it is only Kummer screaming, but we can’t hear it over the gunfire. We pull the trigger and keep pulling. We cut one of the scouts in two, its legs scissoring without control, the heavy upper body and jackhammer kiltering over, pounding the floor.
Then we hear the rotors even over the gunfire and feel the other puppeteer arrive in range with her decem, too late, because the second scout is already on us, on Asya, bending the cannon’s red-hot barrel even as we fire and shatter ourselves. The scout pulps our face, Asya’s beloved face, and I stay to feel it, we will always feel it, we are still feeling it.
The scout drops Asya’s body and comes for us, as Kummer’s limbs jerk with the shock of Asya’s zeroing. I ride the waves, both of Kummer’s hands, my hands, our hands, in the jar, clutching, clutching the dead.
The other soldiers—Tray’s decem—rush into the bunker, swarming the scout, even as it reaches us and jackhammers Kummer’s leg, my leg. Ours? I fall, the jar hanging from my hands, Kummer’s hands. But there are too many bodies on the robot, too many targets to pulp. The scout can’t reach Kummer through the other decem’s bodies. One of them opens fire, cutting the scout, cutting the decem to bloody, oily shreds.
“Goddamn,” the other puppeteer says. Her left pocket reads TRAY. She’s short and blonde with a prosthetic arm, but the other is in her own jar, fingering the empathic gray matter. Two big men with chest cannons flank her, ammo belts looping away into backpacks. Tray comes into the bunker, looks at the shuddering, crawling remains of her decem, and mine, which is only me, us, the ghost of lemons, Kummer. The scouts both still whine and whir but are in too many pieces. Unlike us, they don’t get back up even when they are shattered. “Kummer?”
We cannot answer her. We are still feeling Asya, who is gone. The puppeteer reads the name on our uniform and answers her own question. The command filaments twitch on the floor, and her interpreter, a round-faced boy with almond-shaped eyes and a black ponytail, rushes forward to take the messages. Tray removes the robot’s data module—the information we’d been sent to get in the first place—and shoves it in the boy’s backpack.
“Tell them we have a module and the jar. The puppeteer is whole,” she says.
But she is wrong. We are not whole. We will never be whole again.
Tray brushes our hair back from our forehead and tucks the strands behind our ear as the helicopter lifts the remains of her decem, and our jar, our body on a stretcher, Kummer’s leg splinted and bound, up and away from the compromised bunker. They will take us back to base, and they will fit us with a new decem of various dead acquaintances—no shortage of bodies since the machines started eliminating us—but we will never really leave the bunker. We are here forever, fear-sweat oily on our fingers, the taste of lemons on our tongue, and a too-young voice asking, “Kummer, are we zeroed?”
Yes, Asya, we were. We are.