Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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The Prickling Inside

by Morva Shepley

A train hooted.

"Get down."

They got down behind a prickly, grey bush. There was a shopping trolley strangled in it, branches growing up between the wires. The wires gleamed in the sunlight. Windows flashed and the train sped by.

"All right," Lockey said. He always knew when it was all right.

Elly got up behind him and they ran low across the tracks. They kept their feet moving quickly because there was no way of knowing when the tracks might change and they might be caught with the next train coming, and they kept low because they never knew when there might be a camera in the signal posts, watching them.

They crouched at the corner of the old station building. Other people were arriving, the workers of the city who stood in evenly spaced queues, eyes focused vaguely on the entertainment units that passed for thoughts inside their minds, and waited for the next train to arrive, the next lot of doors to open and take them away.

"They do what the mechs say," Lockey said.

Elly nodded.

"It's those coats they wear," Lockey went on. "It's a uniform that makes them all alike, makes them do what the mechs want, see. All good little coats like the strings on a puppet. Those coats make them obey."

Elly had a twig from the bush they had hidden behind and she wanted to put it in her hair, but Lockey slapped it out of her hand.

"They'll notice us," he said.

Elly looked at him

"We have to get a coat," he told her.

Elly held his gaze while her fingers crept across the ground, seeking out the twig.

"I've got an idea," he said. He always had an idea. Ideas, he said, were what made Humans different from the machines. "The machines see us because we have body heat. What we have to do is not have body heat."

Elly frowned. She was trying to imagine being cold enough that the machines would mistake her for one of themselves. There could be no breathing. The machines would be curious about what she was doing if they thought she was a machine and she was making that small, regular movement in her chest, and shivering.

"We have to get to the university," Lockey said. "The stuff we need's in there."

Elly started to speak, but Lockey already knew what she was thinking. He had thought of it, too. "We'll get black coats," he said. "We'll look normal. That's how we'll get past the trams." He turned, still crouching, and Elly's fingers reached towards the twig and snatched it up again before he saw.

She slipped it into her shoe, and then she was up and running after him. The sun was coming up. Sunlight warmed metal, too. She wondered if Lockey had thought of that, of the way that mechs looked at things.

Lockey had found a black coat. Unfortunately, it was being worn by a young man, Lockey's size, and he didn't want to give up his coat.

"You take my coat, you take my job," the young man said. "Don't you people understand that?"

"Just give it to us," Lockey said. He had a bit of metal of his own in his hand.

"And then what? Do you know how long it takes to get a new one? Don't you understand --" The young man stopped talking. He could see that Lockey knew very well how hard it would be to persuade the machines that his coat had been stolen, that he had not authorised whatever Lockey was going to do while wearing it, that Lockey was, in fact, counting on this delay. "Selfish bastard." The young man's gaze darted about, looking for a way out.

"Slave," Lockey said. "If you didn't give in to them, the rest of us wouldn't have to live like this."

"The rest of you?" The young man scoffed, but his attention came back to Lockey. "It's you lot who should leave us alone. Go out in the countryside if you don't like the city, but you don't have to hang around here making life hard for everyone."

"Hand over your coat," Lockey said.

The young man made to move, to duck and weave past Lockey. Elly put her foot out. The man fell. Lockey was on top of him. The blade moved. Blood welled in the man's throat. It was bright red, a vivid warmth that spouted out against the blackness of his coat. The coat had kept him warm.

"Quick," Lockey said. He wanted to get the coat off before blood got on it. The mechs might notice that. The man's hands were in the way, to push the blade away or to hold his blood in it was hard to tell. Elly tried to get the coat open, her own hands getting in the way of the blade.

"Hurry," Lockey said. They rolled the man over and got the coat off him. "The bastard," Lockey said, rising with the coat over one arm. "He was just trying to slow us down so mechs could get here. Move."

They ran until the sight of the traffic lights at an intersection reminded them that they might be watched. Lockey shrank back into a doorway to pull his coat on.

"You've got to follow me. We'll get a coat for you. That'll make getting to the university easier. If we get split up, meet me there. At the cafeteria. There'll be a crowd. Just walk slow, keep your eyes down, and I'll find you. OK?"

Elly nodded.

"Look," Lockey said. For a moment she thought he'd noticed the twig in her shoe, but he was looking at a cut in his coat's sleeve. The man had put a fist up to defend himself from the blade, and the knife had slashed the cuff. "He got his coat cut."

He turned and walked towards the intersection, hands in his coat pockets, hiding the slash. Lockey thought of everything. He stood at the corner and when a tram stopped and opened its doors he stepped right onto it like he belonged there.

Elly watched the tram move away. No coat and no tram for her. There were some things that Lockey did not think of.

She watched the tram go. There was no sound of sirens. Perhaps the man was not seriously injured enough to need an ambulance. There were no sounds of panic, no shouts and running feet, just the black coats queuing up once more at the tram stop.

The number of trams and cars in this part of the city was so great that she could not run across the road between them. They nosed each other, bumper to bumper, and left no space for her in their relentless, onward roll. She had to wait for some black coats to come by and trigger the pedestrian crossing, then she crossed with them, keeping her head down, taking care that none of them should think she was bothering them. They ignored her, their own gazes vaguely down, which was kind of them. It meant that the machines ignored her, too.

Beyond the block of buildings was a park, a kind of wind sculpture that sucked in air, cleaned it through its filters, and blew it out again, cleaning the air much more efficiently than trees could. It could be climbed, too. Elly climbed it, and jumped off at the other end where the wind caught her and broke her fall. It used to make her laugh, that fall and that sudden softness slowing her, but she was too big now to think she was flying. Instead, she let herself fall, and rolled.

The twig in her shoe hurt. She let it. Across another road was the university and Lockey would be surprised when he found her already there to greet him when he got off the tram.

Students were getting off trams. They walked with their faces down and their hands in their pockets, like Lockey. Lockey had been a student, once, but he had been too full of ideas and the university had spat him out. He had told her about it. It had been one night when she had said they should get some paint and colour the parks, and he said paint was poison, just a way for the mechs to get at them, and then she had said what about planting some plants in the parks and he said that was a stupid idea because the air filters would rust, and she said she didn't think they were made of iron and they wouldn't rust and he said she'd better leave the ideas to him because he was good at them, that the university had thrown him out because of them.

Anyway, she had no idea how to go about stealing some paint.

Lockey strode past her. She thought he noticed her, but had signalled with his eyes that they must not speak yet. They might be seen. She let the crowd from the tram go by before she began to follow him. At the cafeteria he bought a coffee but did not stay to drink it. He carried it across the compound and up some stairs.

"You have to know how things work here," he said, and threw the coffee against the wall. She stared at the milky fall of liquid against the wall and discovered a little eye in there, like a small, glass marble.

A siren sounded. A door slid open.

"Works every time," he said. "Come."

He stepped through and she followed him but when she did she didn't like it. It was one, big, silent machine. There were hazard signs on the walls, radiation symbols on the tanks, and she knew it was all one big heart. It had no beat but it was at work.

"Come," Lockey said. He was already passing through another door, getting out of here. She followed him quickly.

"This is where we'll do it," he said at last. "We'll make humans that the machines can't see. Then we can do anything. We can disconnect them, we can make new ones that obey us. We'll be the masters."

She wanted to tell him to take his coat off, that it didn't suit him, -- that it had its own programming and it was clouding his thinking.

"Lie down," he repeated. He had a syringe and was drawing some liquid from a small, glass bottle. "We know the answer to the machines. It's in our legends. It's an old story that we've passed down to each other. And here it is." He grabbed her arm. "You think keeping a twig in your shoe gives you some sort of identity?" he asked. "Don't worry. I'm not angry. You keep it if you want to." He gave her an injection. "You're going first," he explained. "Because I can't very well do this to myself. But you'll be immortal. All you have to do is lie down." Her knees were buckling. She couldn't tell him how cold she felt. The pressure of his hand made her lie down. "I'm putting a drip into your vein. What I'm going to do is charge your blood. Just sleep for now, and when you wake you'll be strong. You won't need your trees and twigs and splashes of paint. We'll rule the city."

She shivered.

"Don't be like that," he said, and then whispered to her, "You'll be a goddess."

She looked at the tubes in her arm. Her blood was making a tour. It was going outside her body, through the bag, where it picked up something that gleamed, and back. It was strange to watch her own blood take this journey without her.

"No more warmth," he said, but he was wrong. She was feeling strangely warm with the sleepiness overcoming her. "No breath," he said. "That's why they won't find you. This is how we fight the machines, with no heartbeat even."


© 2010 Morva Shepley

Bio: Morva Shepley is long time fan of SF and an emerging writer. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she is raising a family. Recently she had a piece of flash fiction, "Otis Regrets" published in Antipodean SF #141.

E-mail: Morva Shepley

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