This story is by Julien Jmmanuel and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Clenched, an icy fist strangles the free-flowing current of space. It is Fera VII, an ever winter moon, ill with the lowest temperatures known to man. A shell of ice and snow twists over its black-heart core, long dead. Yet heavy streams of howling wind still scrape across it’s surface, pulling maddeningly, like fingernails on stone. A bitter spirit, clinging to all it has left.
Far beneath layers of torn, pale sky, an automated voice pushes briefly against the endless rush of cold air:
“Power level at thirty-percent.”
The chomp of metal feet through snow halts atop a dune. There, a chrome shadow stands weakly and exposed, weighing softly upon the unstable crest. A loud clink rings out as the figure punches itself in the chest.
“Fuck off” a frustrated, hollowed voice told itself.
Somewhere far behind the pilot, a metal heap crammed into the bed of a crater. The crash site of her ship, long lost from where she now stood – nowhere. The white curse of Fera reflected across her bulging, silver eyes. Pointed metal fingers reached out into the thick wind which wrapped unforgivingly around 88’s arm. Ahead, hidden, she might find that small place. A black speck, alone in the frigid waste, that she had spotted on her way down.
She waited again for her internal systems’ automated reminder, that today was a special day.
“Power level at twenty-nine percent.”
“– I’m going to fucking die today.” 88 spouted, smacking her chest again.
There was nothing she could do about the incessant battery-call, narrating the intervals of her demise. That deep within her, like a cooling sun, her power supply was quickly waning. Soon the red and blue lights blinking beneath her shoulders would flick out, and time become memory.
The android stepped irritably forward, appeasing the wastes’ cold hunger on her soul. In this, she had no choice. One might not be so quick to realize – being a machine, whose mind can not help but strike at the very source of any query – the indisputable nature of most matters. Something 88 was only just beginning to unravel. From enlisting as a Defense pilot, to now surviving the stretches of seventh hell. Inside her silver head, a single spark snaps at the end of her wires.
The morals of a kingdom could be determined by the placing of a single cornerstone.
The thought was quick.
“Being made, by – dirty human hands.” she snapped in reply. The hollow of her voice swallowed into the freezing wind. “A crashed ship, by god.” All things whose beginnings were never hers to decide, and yet she inherited every blasted mile thereafter.
Thoughts, untying cables deep inside her, revealing something quite ugly. Soft ice quelled under heel as 88 continued across the slope’s fragile spine. With each step, a miniature avalanche pouring down, evening out the extremities of a vast and endless plane. Whatever she had seen, burning her way down through the atmosphere, couldn’t be far. There were human outposts on this moon. Many, in fact. Spaced only so far apart, that a man would die walking between them.
“But I’m no man.” 88 said, watching her steps carefully.
Suddenly, the android’s heart hopped inside her at an unexpected sound –
“Power level at twenty-percent.”
The slope’s spine burst under her feet. A plume of snow rocketed from where she stood; her thin, metal frame cascading down the white hillside. 88 clawed into the surface, in attempt to slow her descent, but it was too late. A blinding wave erupted around her as she crashed into the slope’s base.
88 shot her hand upwards to break the surface of her freezing grave, but was too far under. She could feel the trickling layers of snow on top of her slowly stop. And then – silence. Her arms and legs twisted in the tight burial. Then, after a moment of frustrated fidgeting, the pilot gave up. Packed in with her, like an insult, the automated cry of her leaking heart muffled through the frost. She lay still, like a human in cryogenic sleep, though still very much alive and aware.
A low, ominous groan burrowed around her. The pilot’s heart threw up against her chest as the ground lurched. Beneath her, an unknown distance of snow pulled and sucked. Panicked, 88 began to writhe and reach outwards in attempt to escape. However, the unrelenting pull grasped at her. She slipped further down, wedging into darkness. Twisting groans vibrated as a thousand shifting tons of ice continued to swallow. The spirit of fear grew alive inside her. And a light, robotic whimper, being all that she could spare herself.
Below, the tight grasp around her ankles began to abruptly tear away. Miraculously, 88 could feel her feet now dangling free. She kicked furiously back and forth, and the groans around her sputtered and crumbled. Then, like a bird released from it’s nest, the world around her let go, and she fell through –
“Power level at seventeen-percent.”
The android’s system-alert crawled up candied-ice walls; a cave revealed around her. Abandoned, like trash, remnants of a human outpost sprawled across the cave floor. Plasteel boxes and other containers, frosted and forgotten, lay on their sides. Light from the collapsed ceiling opened all to the android’s scanning eyes and racing core. She stared desperately at her surroundings, wondering how she could have missed it above the surface. The discarded camp rolled over her reflective glare, until one thing stood apart from the rest. Quickly, she sprung from her pile of dust.
The echo of sporadic footsteps filled the cave as she sped forward, then stopped. There, standing before her, a telecom spike in disrepair. Disturbed particles lifted around it, illuminated by the dim light. 88 collapsed onto her knees in front of the the device, her silver hands falling onto the control box. Maybe she could fix it –
“Power level at twelve-percent.”
A cold, cutting sensation snaked through the cords in her chest, and she felt the ugliness open again. The last electric gasps of a fatal wound, spitting into winter air. 88’s aggravated fingers curled against the control box. Their sharp points leaving white lines on black paint. She stared bitterly through the box’s unopened panel. Behind it, more than just a mess of old wires – a question.
What is the difference between hope, and fear?
What were motivated hands, now melted into something else. The pilot’s pointed fingertips, pulling at the panel’s edge, relaxed and fell. Slowly, she stood up from the comm spike, figuring the answer to be clear. She was quick like that.
88 turned away from the old, metal thorn, and walked subtly back from where she had fallen. She sat down in the pile of snow, her chrome face of fabricated features breaking the ray of pouring light. For the first time today, everything seemed to stop moving. Where a human might let out a long day’s breath, a gentle hum came from the android’s perforated mouth. And at the end of her electronic sigh, a familiar sound –
“Power level at five-percent.”
88’s relaxed frame sat still in the light.
“I’ll tell you something.” she said, humoring herself, as if to converse with the automated tone. “ It’s been a year and eleven months since my activation.”
There was a pause, followed by another of her electric hums.
“I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been terrible.” she continued. “And maybe I could fix that black, human box. Maybe someone would answer… and come get me.”
The thought of being revived after powering down – would she even be the same person? Or jumping through just one more human hoop.
88 reached to her chest, and slid her fingertips into the edge of a panel. With ease, the panel snapped open, and swung out. Inside, dazzling ornaments, silver and chrome. Her hand moved through, closing around something warm, but growing cooler.
“I’ll tell you… this cornerstone will be mine.”
The android pulled, and a loud snap rang through the ice chamber. The red and blue lights beneath her shoulders flicked out.
Resting in her shining palm, her power core.