To Be Human -1
Salem had been thrown out with the trash. Literally.
After one fatal mistake, they’d taken her back, fixed her as well as they could and when that had proven useless they’d flown her all the way out to the Wastes only to throw her from the helicopter onto the endless mountains of broken electronics and other things that had no place in their gleaming city of wonders.
It’s these same mountains that she climbs every day now. Picking apart the heaps of cables and other tidbits to find the things that can be recycled. Salem is not the only one doing so. It’s the only way to make a living in the Wastes. Take whatever is still useful, bring it home safely and create something out of it, that’s what life’s like for most people here.
She’d learned that recently, from the family that had found her and kindly taken her in even if there really was no way they could feed another mouth. It was for that reason mostly that she pushed herself up the hill even further, careful not to disturb the delicate balance. One misstep could cause everything to slip away, spelling disaster for her and everyone else on this particular trash heap.
It was a good day, lots of things having been thrown out that she could use. With a satisfied grunt, she threw the last bits and pieces in her bag before slinging it over her shoulder and slowly making her way down.
The Fields of Gold, as they were called, were a mess. And yet it was the place to go if you were in want of fresh air. It wasn’t in any way clean or easy on the nose, especially one as sensitive as hers, but it was better than the toxic fumes that surrounded the town. Almost every house came with its own workshop in which people worked with dangerous substances all day. Batteries were some of the worst offenders, and people who worked with those often were known to die early. Even by the Wastes’ standard.
What space wasn’t occupied by houses and workshops was taken by shops instead. Salesmen shouting all day that whatever trash they had was better than everyone else's, but most of them wouldn’t even know. You became a salesman if you couldn’t work with what you sold because no one capable of collecting themselves would ever buy parts. Either that or they were the artists who’d recently started flooding the Wastes. They bought even the most expensive pieces as long as they looked just right for their composition. But even if they were city dwellers, they’d earned a certain amount of respect by sacrificing their own health to work from here.
Breathing in the first toxic fumes she wrapped her scarf around her face, a meager means of protection from what would kill her before long. She wasn’t born here, hadn’t adapted to the environment as most of the Wastelanders had. It made her stand out in the crowd and led to the salesmen calling her out specifically as they thought her a city dweller looking for a bargain.
The sight of gleaming steel making up the left side of her body made them falter, however, but as their voices quieted down their eyes turned hungry. She could see the calculating stares behind the looks of lust and want. Salem would die before she sold though.
And she would have certainly died if no one had been willing to take her in, even if her wounds had been healed. ‘Healed’ was a term to be used loosely. Only recovered enough to have foreign limbs strapped to her body. No rest for the wicked and no rest for their creations either. Those men had watched over her all her life. Yet they didn’t care; hadn’t even named her. She’d done it herself once she was free. S1 had become Salem, a name she wore with pride.
Not giving the vendors any more attention she made her way through the central marketplace before taking a left into a quieter district. The houses sat close together, tarps strung between them to cover the outside working spaces and the road connecting them. She remembered putting them up a couple of weeks ago and knew they wouldn’t offer much protection once the rainy season started in earnest. You only needed a single year to know how brutal the rain could be and this would be her fifth.
Salem used to be fond of rain and enjoyed the way it would softly patter against the windows of the apartment she’d been gifted after starting the job she was born to do. Now, like everyone else in the Wastes, she feared it. The rain would come in sudden and fierce, and with the water, it would bring down all the poison they sent up themselves. The streets, which were not actual streets but roads made of dirt, would turn dangerous and wash away if they weren’t careful. Like everything else out here, the rain seemed determined to flush them out and make them flee. But people held on because people were desperate like that.
She took her usual spot outside. No rain had been predicted to come in today, and even if the air was toxic and stank, she far preferred it to the staleness of the air inside. That stagnant air never failed to remind her of the lab. Of careful prodding and poking, of needles and tests. Of that voice that always told her that she could do better, that she was made to do better. Even now it was difficult to get rid of the voice.
Not many people took their work outside, so it wasn’t long before she was interrupted.
A tiny girl walked closer and regarded the way she worked with big eyes. Salem wasn’t familiar with the child, but it was quite possible she’d either wandered far from home or didn’t have one, to begin with. People died all the time out here, and orphans were common.
“Your arm looks funny,” the child eventually called and pointed to the gleaming silver prosthetic that she had instead of an actual hand. Sun reflecting from iron caught her eye as she followed the girl’s finger and as always she couldn’t help but be reminded of her past failure. Of course, that failure had led to new opportunities and insights and, in the end, freedom. But there was always first that pang of loss, for there had been a normal hand there once.
She shrugged, “I lost it, so I got a fake one to replace it.” And that was nowhere near the complete story, but it was all the child needed to know.
“Oh, well, it’s pretty,” the girl said. Of course, like any child of the Wastes, she was more than familiar with prosthetics and their use. Accidents were a daily occurrence and if you didn’t die it was likely you’d lose a limb. Some of her playmates might have them as well because explosions weren’t uncommon either and regularly caught innocents in them.
Laws dictated that children were not allowed to do actual work, but living on top of a workshop meant being in constant danger.
Still, none of them would have a prosthetic as nice as her left arm and leg. Two limbs she’d lost along with her rank, her job, and her purpose. The replacements were two of the last things she still had of her former life, a futile attempt to salvage the project they’d spent years and years upon developing. And then throwing her out, not caring if the prosthetics went with her.
They were valued here, even if most people would never be able to afford them. Crafted to look as much like actual human body parts as possible, made out of strong metal that wouldn’t rust even if thrown into the ocean. They were valued, and that was why she’d almost sold them out of despair once. She never could part with them though. It would be too harsh, like a definitive goodbye to who Salem had been in the past.
She worked in silence afterward, letting the little girl watch as she used her prosthetic as well as any other human would use their hand.
And then she cursed, for once again one of the joints locked up and she couldn’t properly bend her middle finger anymore. Even if they were some of the best prosthetics in existence they needed regular care and check-ups, neither of which she could provide.
Even with all the experience she’d gained over the years, she wouldn’t be able to, as she only had one hand to work with. There was no other option but to ignore it for now and hope to find someone to work on it soon. She cursed again and abandoned her work, leaving the little girl alone outside as she made her way indoors.
It was times like this that she felt useless, helpless, and wished she’d died back when she’d rolled down the mountain of trash that was now her home. Times like this that made her finally feel as if she belonged here, thrown out with the trash like everything else.
More than anything else though, she felt angry.
Gleaming blue eyes settled on the prey in front of him. Silently judging today’s opponents S2 concluded that it wouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, he’d been taught to fight his entire life. Was born for it even.
He put his weight on his feet in the back, straining his muscles as he readied himself. The signal sounded, and he was off. More than run, he flew forward, readying his blade to cut in. With his strength and the speed with which he came at them, the poor simulations never stood a chance.
He hacked and slashed, carefully maneuvering around his opponents and not even letting them touch him. He hadn’t trained all these years to falter now, this was a literal walk in the park for him.
Fighting like this he was able to forget about the audience that watched his every move, recorded his every physical aspect. It was a freedom he was seldom given. To move how he wanted to.
But not really. They expected him to perform as he’d been taught. The emotionless killing of whatever target they pointed him at was what they wanted, and he would provide. Maybe that would finally make him good enough.
He caught his breath as he stood in the bloodied remains of his targets. Even if he knew that such a show of weakness wasn’t allowed, the reminder of humanity was a welcome one. Blood dripped down his sword, and his clothing, but it would disappear as soon as the simulation shut down.
As he returned to reality the sound of typing and scribbling of pens reached his ears. They were taking notes. They always did. He was used to these sounds, hated them but didn’t show it. These sounds, as usual, were followed by the crackling noise of the microphone being switched on.
A nasal voice, one he had been intimately familiar with ever since he could remember, called out, “I expected you to be faster, but I guess this was passable. Come out now, we’ve got work to do.” Passable. He was always passable at best, never just good or even adequate. Just passable. That wouldn’t do, he needed to prove he was the best. He was made to be the best.
“S2, heel!” The voice called through the microphone and he dropped as if gravity had suddenly doubled. His arms went to his back immediately just in time for the door to open. Before any other commands were issued he felt the cold metal of familiar handcuffs circle his wrists. So they would either hose him down in another room or not clean him at all. The sword he’d dropped at the first order was kicked out of reach, just in case he suddenly broke from his restraints. Unlikely, but he would be the first to admit it would be a possibility. One he hadn’t entertained for years though.
As soon as everything was in order he was pulled to his feet and pushed forward. By now he knew what was expected and so he fell into step easily. A hand on his shoulder told him where to go, but he was sure that if they’d just told him where to go he could have found the place blindfolded. He’d had to, at one point. They’d wanted to make him less dependent on his sight and kept him blind for nearly a year. It was tiresome and he was glad it was over and done with.
The walk wasn’t very long. None of them were. S2 had never left, but he knew that this place was only part of a bigger thing and that there was a world outside of it. The researchers mentioned it all the time and he’d had to study it. But he’d never seen it.
It only took them a few minutes to reach what he’d affectionately come to call his box. Inside a laboratory stood a glass encasement, see-through on all sides, and with only a thin mattress as furniture. He’d slept in here most of his life. Alone.
Occasionally he’d smelled others, but as the years went on their scents had faded away. That was alright, the professor always told him that there was no one else like him. S2 was unique in every way and he should be proud of that fact. And yet, when locked inside his box like this, S2 wished that there was someone like him out there, waiting for him when he was finally released into the world. He could only hope that day would come soon.