If only I could outrun the grinding. Then at least I could hear myself think. What is that horrid sound? It seems to come from everywhere. Hair thin icicles dangle from my chin. What remains of my tears. How did I get here? It hurts to remember.
There was a storm, and a crash. We’d passed over McMurdo less than an hour earlier. Officially it’s a research station but to look at it from the air it’s not exaggerating to call it a town. Around a thousand live there at any given time with everything from a convenience store to a chapel serving the people who live and work there.
I fly one of the few B52s still in regular use. Or I did until a freak storm knocked it out of the sky. Of all the things to pass through my head as the plane tumbled around me, I thought of the black mark on my record, the cost of replacing the plane and other related trivialities.
Am I still in the plane? No, it can’t be. I remember pulling my copilot Dan out of the wreckage. Wind whipping around us like so many flying daggers. The coordinates we were meant to air drop the payload to were less than a mile away. So deceptive. Less than a mile may as well be a thousand in an Antarctic blizzard.
There was no sense waiting for the rest of the fuel to go up. I slung Dan onto my back, checked my gps and began trudging towards the drop point. Everywhere the air touched my skin was in agony until it went numb, as if resigning itself to the situation. Exhaustion soon set in, but what I dreaded more was the feeling of warmth.
It’s an illusion that overcomes those lost in the snow. Drives them to shed their layers in order to cool down which of course only kills them faster. I’m ashamed to say that when I recognized this feeling for what it was, I began to ask myself how well I really know Dan. The sort of moral calculus that’s all too easy to justify to yourself when the life in question is not your own.
My mind turned, as it frequently does while sober, to memories of friends I’d lost in Afghanistan. Could I have done more? I swore I’d never again give myself reason to wonder that. “Whether we make it or freeze, we do it together” I muttered to the breathing but otherwise unresponsive mass on my shoulders.
Romanticism goes before death. I couldn’t believe my legs were giving up, even on the way down. One minute I was trudging along and the next, simply ran out of steam. Through the howling winds, just past the freshly laid down snow drifts I spotted a brutalist concrete entryway jutting up out of the snow. Like the hallucinatory oasis in the desert.
Am I dead? That can’t be it either. I feel pain. Not the pain of burning in a lake of fire. The ever-present low level pain from various points on my arms, legs and face. I feel the warmth and wetness of blood trickling down my forehead, between my eyes. Soon that will freeze too. One foot in front of the other, in front of the other. Always the grinding. The tedious, surging, droning sound of metal scraping against ice.
There was more. The door opened. I saw it as my vision grew blurry, just before I blacked out. I saw all sorts of things. Heard and felt them. Like the cold hands dragging me as I feebly thrashed about. When I next awoke, I wondered if this too might be a hallucination.
I found myself on a gurney in a modestly apportioned medical center. The walls were stained concrete. The floor and ceiling comprised of rusted steel panels. I heard the echoes of distant dripping and, for the first time, that incessant grinding. Far away then, not yet familiar.
“Oh, you’re awake. Welcome to the gallery.” I searched the room for the origin of the voice. A horn shaped loudspeaker in the corner. “I worried about your odds, you know. You’re quite robust! Even so, frostbite claimed quite a bit.” I hadn’t thought to roll back the sheet covering me. Underneath, both of my legs from the knee down were replaced by motorized prosthetics as well as my arms, from the hand up to the elbow.
I cried out, thrashed and tumbled out of bed. “That’s no good” the scratchy, low fi voice admonished. “You’re still healing. I’d advise more rest.” I swore up a storm amidst the confused babbling. Each of the new extremities emitted an electric whirr as I used it to right myself, stand up, walk and so on. It was an uphill battle to form sentences. This is when it first occurred to me that I might’ve suffered a head injury as well.
“Who are you? What is this place? Where’s Dan?” I heard whirring, distant at first but closer and closer until something resembling an angular steel suit of armor burst through double doors at the end of the room and approached me. Each footstep produced a resounding “clang”. Each motion accompanied by the same irritating motor noise as my own prosthetics.
“I really do insist you stay in bed for the time being. My associate here will see to that. A meal will be brought to you shortly. As for your friend, he’s recovering in the adjacent room.”
I scowled. Government? No, not like this. Corporate? Didn’t fit either. A private interest of some kind, certainly. It occurred to me that I owed the mystery voice my life. That calmed me down somewhat.
The meal did eventually arrive as promised. Thick juicy steak, medium rare. Not my preference but I was in no position to turn up my nose at hot food. As I ate, the armored guard stood a few feet away. I couldn’t tell if he was staring. The helmet afforded only a pair of narrow slits to peer through and from this angle I couldn’t see his eyes.
I could hear him breathing, though. And once or twice I could swear I heard him whimper. Attempts to make small talk with him fell flat. Constantly, little motor whines came from his limbs. All the little adjustments we make subconsciously to stay balanced. I recognized my own as the top shelf myoelectric prosthetics Uncle Sam buys you if to lose an arm or a leg to an IED.
“Hey fella. How do you take all that off?” As ever, no answer. His helmet had no visible hinges or seams. None of it did. Just more labored breathing as he stood there, dutifully preventing me from getting out of bed. I could see his side of it. The bits where my limbs transitioned into the prosthetics were red and puffy. “You’ll want to rub some antibiotic on that. There’s a tube of it on the tray to your left.” The voice sounded like the one from the intercom, but came from the fellow in the suit of armor this time.
“Well, go on” it urged me. “You don’t want that to get infected.” I did as instructed, squeezing out a generous dollop of the translucent paste and rubbing it all over the tender inflamed skin. Still staring at the steel golem beside my bed, wondering what possessed it to talk all of a sudden.
“This fellow is one of my finest so far. I wanted to put my best face forward, as we don’t often get visitors. You’ll see a few more like him, my eyes and ears around this little community. The rest are...more rudimentary. It is difficult to get my hands on the most recent parts. That’s what you were hired to deliver. All up in flames now.”
I tried to apologize but my speech slurred. My vision was beginning to blur as well. I looked around and spotted an intravenous drip that the armored fellow was adding something to. Before I could protest, I was out like a light.
When I woke up, the guard was gone. How long was I out? No clocks visible anywhere. No windows, most likely underground, so no sense of whether it was light out. Just the sound of fans circulating air, dripping water, and that faint grinding sound.
I threw off the sheets and tested my new legs. I found I could stand easily enough, but felt pins and needles. Like when you sit on your leg for too long. I could faintly feel just enough to control the limbs but mercifully not the cold metal floor. Each step made a clickety clack sound as the heel, then toe of the metal and plastic feet came down.
Even after extended practice I still felt a little wobbly, like a newborn deer. The two legs had different styling, as did each of the forearms. A different manufacturer in each case. Whoever fit me with them did an impressive job matching it all up. I started for the double doors. Gripping the rusted metal handles I found the hands had limited sensation. Just on soft white rubber pads found on the palm and tips of the fingers.
Clickety clack, clickety clack down the corridor. I had to touch to be sure. The walls and ceiling were roughly hewn ice. The entire tunnel looked to be carved right out of the ice shelf. There was no heating here, very soon I began to violently shiver. Only a few lights still worked, even those were in a bad way. Some flickered, others went out at random for several seconds only to then spring back to life.
By the time it occurred to me how easy it would be to get disoriented, it’d already happened. Which direction had I come from? It was at least warm back in the medical room, and there’d been some expectation of regular meals. Who built all of this?
I had some passing familiarity with the various research stations on the South Pole. I also recalled a base under the ice built in Greenland by the US Government during the cold war. Whoever designed this facility took a page from that book. If only there were some logo or flag. Instead, only endless labyrinthine ice tunnels.
The grinding grew louder. Some sort of generator? Or machine shop? I headed towards it, hoping at least for someplace warm. What I found instead was a long, barren corridor with a single flickering bulb intermittently revealing a strange figure perhaps ten yards away.
“Oh! I uh, was looking for the bathroom” I blurted out. It twitched, registering my voice but little else. “Listen, I’m not supposed to be here. My plane went down nearby, and-” abruptly, it began to limp towards me. Dragging one of its legs which, as it scraped along, emitted that familiar ear splitting grinding sound.
Nothing I said after that seemed to interest it. Relentlessly advancing, one belabored step at a time, dragging that mangled leg behind it. As soon as it reached the penumbra of the first working light, I understood. It was something like the armored man from my room, but incomplete.
The chest plate and helmet were missing, affording me an unobstructed view of the tortured creature within. Scarred almost beyond recognition, I almost wasn’t sure if it had been a man before this. The chest bore a Y incision awkwardly stitched up, with flexible hoses and wires passing into the chest cavity through it.
His lower jaw was missing. In its place, a sort of medical mask which combined a forcible respirator and intravenous feeding tube, pumping some sort of thick beige liquid down his throat. The left side of his face was caved in slightly and the skin conformed to the shape of a bulky lidar imager in place of his left eye.
Both arms and legs were entirely artificial. Older models by the looks of it. Loud motor whine and whirring gears accompanied each movement. The left leg terminated in a crippled foot, made worse by the dragging. One arm had a conventional robotic hand. The other was a long, thin power drill. It raised this implement as it approached, and the drill stuttered to life.
“Consider the Limper”, a familiar scratchy voice implored, coming out of a speaker somewhere on the creature’s body. ”Each step a painful ordeal. Sinew and muscle straining against cold, dead metal, nonetheless cooperating in patchwork unison towards a singular goal. What a sympathetic figure. Yet his drill is thirsty, and you are full of lubricant. One of my early pieces, I fear it hasn’t aged well.”
The look on the man’s face was one of intense anguish. I wanted to help, but as it seemed helplessly compelled to hunt me, I saw no alternative except to run back the way I came. The grinding never ceased, only grew muffled with distance. Each corner I turned diminished my confidence that I knew where I was going. Every corridor looked the same. Am I still there?
Can’t be. I remember finally coming to a pair of doors, warm tungsten light pouring out through the small inset windows. The grinding grew steadily louder behind me as I struggled to open them. They didn’t feel locked as each had some give, but rather obstructed from the other side by clutter.
The grinding grew ever louder. As it turned the corner just behind me I could also hear the whirring, whining and clicking of its various parts as it bore down on me. It released an agonized moan. I rammed the doors with my shoulder and burst through.
But into what? The scene before me was a surgical theater. “Naughty boy! If you’re going to spectate, at least be clean about it.” I took a mask, hair cap and sanitary wipe from one of the six spindly articulated limbs of what I figured for a surgical robot of some kind.
“This is indeed where the magic happens. I thought to kick you out at first. But to permit an outsider such an intimate view as I work really is electrifying!” The grainy intercom voice now came from the robot as it methodically weaved fine fiber optic cables into the metal spinal column of a man’s upper body.
“Do you know what I did before I became a surgeon? It won’t surprise you. I was a puppeteer! My great love was to give things the appearance of life by putting myself into them. But my dream was to truly give life to something I built.
Not a simple robot but something which fears, which searches for nourishment, which tries to survive! The elan vital. Spark of life alchemists searched so long for. It’s the organism itself, isn’t it?
Bolt enough of those into any old pile of scrap and I guarantee it will start moving. Because it wants to live. And because it is in pain, but who is to say that pain isn't as valid a mode of being as pleasure?”
I held my head in my hands. Cold, plastic hands. So many things I could have said to it. Would it listen? Who was I really talking to? It continued prattling on as if that’s what I’d come here for. “Bring a living organism into it. That’s when it gets interesting for me. Real moral weight! That’s the value the soft squishy bits bring to the table. They just get in the way aside from that.”
The lower body of the creature was wheeled in through the same double doors. It resembled an angular metal skeleton with moist red muscle tissue linking the pieces. As I watched, the spider like robot expertly joined the lower spinal column of the existing upper body to the legs and pelvis.
“Let’s get a few things out of the way, shall we? It should be clear to you, at least, that I am technically skilled. I can absolutely restore function resembling stock human configurations. That’s what I did for you.
There was never any frostbite to speak of. As with artists who stray from anatomical norms, it is expected that they first demonstrate mastery of those norms. I assure you it was painful for me to perform such a trite procedure. Perfect symmetry, restoration of original function only.
I was sorely tempted many times to add in a spinning blade, or hydraulic claw arm. I can still do that for you! I say it’s just as good an arm for the money. No, better! It’s miles better than the one you have now!”
The completed creature was wheeled out by some obscene amalgam of a human torso and head, a three wheeled motorized base and a small crane of the type used to work on car engines. I doubled over, struggling not to vomit.
“I admit some fairly large trespasses against conventional ideas of decency. But then, even recycling everything, I often want for quality parts. Many of the pieces you’ve seen were cobbled together during dry spells. Creative dark times for me I’m afraid.
Your shipment of top shelf myoelectric prosthetics was supposed to liven things up, but you shit the bed on that one didn’t you. Still, my babies salvaged quite a bit from the wreckage, and now I have a healthy new specimen to showcase my work to. Do you even begin to understand how privileged you are? How exclusive access normally is?”
I was wedged into the far corner, quietly repeating the Lord’s prayer. Was the voice the surgical robot? Was he the armored guard from my room? Still, it continued. “By what right do I do all of this, you ask? Voice filled with righteous indignation, fist held to the sky? What did any of these poor wretched primates do before this?
Vagrants, drifters, junkies. What society digests human life, sweeps the remains under the rug and then tells me I cannot make something new and beautiful from it? But I am not here to agitate against the system which put me here. I am now exactly where I belong. I just ask that when it is done tearing the modern man apart, let me have what’s left.”
A new monstrosity entered view. The base of a powered wheelchair, a skull with a single eyeball constantly hydrated by a little motorized mister, and a casio electronic keyboard with a single human finger duct taped to the far side with wires trailing from it. “Oh hello Jeffrey! That’s my delightful little muse. One of my first creations and faithful companion after all these years.”
The bizarre little mountain of parts began to play a sporadic melody consisting of just one tone, the key within reach of the single finger under its control. “He was so happy when a plane went down with a keyboard! Jeffrey so loves to play keyboard, you see. Even if it is just the one tone. I tell him it’s a new genre! He is a pioneer in his field, like his proud papa! If Jeffrey can find happiness in this world, there surely must be something to it all.”
It scooted by me and out through the double doors, hammering happily on that same key the whole way. Or was it sadness? No way to discern. Perhaps that was the point of it. The next subject came in screaming. Non-stop terrified shrieking, though the voice was evidently already quite hoarse. Until her vocal chords were severed.
“Too many are like her. No sense of sacrifice for art, or appreciation for what they have the opportunity, through me, to be a part of. Look at this! The delicate juxtaposition of life, and mortal danger, within a single figure!”
While he talked, he’d cut her ribcage open and installed a spinning blade a centimeter or so from her heart. “Who else but me could make it work? You are too kind. In her case, I doubt she will last more than a day. But all life is transient. And each of us has a whirling blade of obsession in our chest which grinds at us, slowly destroying everything in us which does not serve it. When she expires I will recycle whatever is recoverable and burn the rest.”
He removed the woman’s eyes and mounted a scrolling text screen to her face instead. With the addition of a ribbon cable attaching it to a freshly implanted brain interface, words began to appear. “Michael….Michael….Michael….Help me Michael. Help me Michael. Help me.”
I creeped along the wall as he spoke until I felt the edge of a doorway, then bolted through it. I heard the voice trail off behind me, continuing to absentmindedly narrate its grim work whether or not anybody else was present to hear. I didn’t get far.
The abstract creature dragging itself along the corridor had a human head, albeit missing the jaw and fitted with a combo feeder/respirator. The rest of it was a tangled jumble of arms, legs and torsos.
The bulk of its body, insofar as it could be said to have a single body, was supported by a sort of mesh sling attached to a wheeled metal framework from which an IV drip bag was also suspended. The piteous mess scraped along, dragging itself with whatever hands were closest to the ground, quietly whimpering.
“Consider the Dragalong” bellowed the scratchy intercom voice, now coming from the beast before me. “The strength of a dozen men, but put together differently than nature recommends. Grabbing blindly at the earth, desperately pulling itself towards warmth and nourishment, as do we all. This piece started simply as storage for excess limbs. They stay fresher this way.”
I doubled back, now simply looking for my room. From there I assumed there was passage to the surface. I’d long since seen enough to prefer taking my chances in the snow. “You know why they sent me here? Cheap cold storage for the parts. They could not justify the expense otherwise, not to support such a notorious figure. But my work was altogether too revolutionary to dispense with!
Instead they permit me to continue in secret. I send them useful findings, they send me care packages, as it were. New materials, new possibilities for expression. Sometimes prosthetics. Sometimes warm bodies.
No distinction exists, soon after they arrive. It all flows into the ever-fresh, self-rejuvenating exhibition. Fueled by the new meat, sustained by it until it expires, then recycled into something original! A second chance at the spotlight.”
The cacophony enveloped me. The familiar distant grinding. The squeaky wheel of the creature behind me, dragging itself. The whirling blade. All of it surging, pulsing, an otherworldly rhythm. Echoing down the frozen corridors and out into the ice. I headed for the next door I saw with light on the other side and, upon barging through, immediately regretted it.
I don’t know what I expected. What I’d seen so far would be impossible to sustain otherwise. But I had to really see it, to put a name to the dread I’d felt until that moment. The room was just endless rows of pregnant women’s torsos. No head or limbs. The stumps capped off with tubes and wires trailing from them. Next to each, a monitor displaying a continuous sonogram of the developing fetus.
“Do take note, I am not without mercy. Their heads have been removed and put to better use elsewhere. This is a career I would not wish on my harshest critic” the staticy voice explained. “The ones born here are increasingly of inferior intellect. Too degenerated, after many years of recycling the same seed. I need them more as a self-replenishing supply of arms, legs, organs and other filler than anything else.
The core must always be a well formed brain so that it understands what life was before, what has happened to it and what life will be for it going forward. This authentic psychological anguish and struggle for survival is the indispensable core of a triumphant piece.”
As I watched, an insemination machine on rails stopped dutifully beneath each torso, inserting the long metal proboscis and conceiving new life which could never imagine what was in store for it. The torsos furthest along in their pregnancies were being cut into by row after row of identical surgical robots like the one I’d seen earlier.
A cry pierced the air as one delivered a newborn into the world. It laid the quivering, bloody pup into an incubator on wheels topped with half of a human head with part of a smartphone where the eye should be. Its mouth haplessly flopped open and shut as it motored away, like a fish out of water. The whine of the electric motor driving it fading into the larger tapestry of sound, set against the distant grinding I now realized would truly never stop.
“The development of the young is accelerated with the same growth hormones you presently use on cattle, as well as steroids to promote muscle development. This often confuses the body with respect to gender, such that sometimes surgical corrections are necessary.
From what limited information about the outside world I receive, I understand that’s become quite a popular procedure! I’ll have you know I was doing it before it was cool, culturally acceptable, or voluntary.”
“But the real problem is genetic degradation! It affects the brain first, and that directly impacts my craft. What’s needed to restore balance is an infusion of new DNA from a rugged, robust donor. That’s you, my friend! Enough material was taken while you slept for the next decade, easily. That will be your lasting contribution to my always growing body of work.”
I stumbled from the room, stunned and nauseous. When I felt I could stand, I ran. I can’t say for how long. I only stopped because the still fresh sutures joining one of my stumps to the prosthetic leg split.
Blinding pain followed as the metal brace from the prosthetic leg, bolted directly to bone, split that bone into fragments and tore at the nerve as I collapsed into a blubbering heap. The abomination with the incubator for a belly lazily wheeled past. As it did, I looked upon the face of the infant inside with new understanding.
Above the ice, the storm had long since abated. The emergency beacon, activated when the plane first impacted, managed to get a signal out as the atmospheric conditions became more forgiving. “If you’re listening to this, stay close to the plane. If there are any fuel fires, put them out, but burn anything else away from the plane to stay warm. I had some colleagues at McMurdo pull some strings so I could be on the first flight out to your location. Hang tight daddy, I’m coming to save you.”
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