Skinwalkers

I keep dreaming about those big, expressionless eyes. All black with no visible corneas, unblinking, staring out forever and ever.


Many animals have eyes like that. When I was young, maybe eight years old, my father brought home a silver cockatiel. I’d begged for months. It wasn’t even my birthday, or a holiday, and he was a single father struggling to stay in medical school. But somehow he made it happen. The bird was one of a few splurges my father ever managed. Someone had already named her Lily.


Lily had those big, black eyes. You couldn’t even tell what direction she was looking in unless she cocked her color-mottled head, a curious crest feather unfurling.


They're the first eyes like that I remember, but it’s not Lily’s eyes I dream about. It’s the eyes of skinwalkers. Lying here, I try to ignore them for a few more precious, if sleepless, minutes.


Relaxation is difficult once I’m awake. My thoughts and heartbeat race each other. My face and hands burn. I’m developing a reaction to some unfathomable bacteria or chemical in this forsaken place.


I stare beyond the barred windows of the dormitory, wondering when I last saw true light. The sky swallows itself, revealing only a jaundiced tongue of sunlight strangled on a cloud cravat.


But it doesn't matter. Any moment, the 22 kHz alarm will sound, summoning a wave of waking skinwalkers. My first week, I'd found their morning groans haunting. But I don't jerk awake anymore. It's become a circadian game, I guess, the way I wake up first.


I sit and count the days remaining until I can walk away with my payload. I start at fifty. Forty-nine. Forty-eight... The chorus of pained howls begins. Forty-seven. When I finally count down to one, having imagined the days as seconds, the end seems within reach.


Every day, I’ll start one number lower. I’ll need less time to steel myself. Every day, leaving gets closer. Every day, I’ll be a little less scared.


I leave the dormitory and walk beside the groaning husks. Their ten-foot metal frames and mounds of loose, fleshy limbs obscure my sight, but in glimpses I can see the line already stretched to the end of the factory floor. The moaning stops as the nutrient apéritif, a blend of preservatives and amphetamines, fully permeates their organic tissue. Movements become perfect and fluid. Each turns to its designated station, awaiting an endless offering of parts, ready to perform precise minutiae for eighteen hours.


By day's end they'll produce nearly a thousand units. Guns, toys, engines, whatever the company’s been paid to produce on-demand. Far more cost-effective than engineering a unique assembly line for every item, the skinwalkers combine the human qualities of contextual adaptation and reflexive decision-making with the programmed benefits of immediate blueprint analysis and machine learning. Instant experts that only become more efficient. Enough for the factory to make a killing. Enough to pay a surgeon enough to walk away and never look back after two months’ work.


I press between the skinwalkers, shivering as their cold skin brushes against me. Overseer Hinton is already working in the infirmary at the catwalk's far end, eclipsed by a defective skinwalker in an operation harness. From behind, I see the first set of hands at the top of its chassis is mangled down to the wrists.


"How'd it happen?" I ask.


"Burn," Hinton says. "Shot tests on yesterday’s cutlasses. I'm nearly done with this one. Help me replace the last parts and run diagnostics."


I hadn't noticed the charred tissue. This is the first explosion-related injury I've seen since starting. By far, the most common repair is routine limb replacement, after the flesh has been rendered useless from overwork.


I walk in a circle around the harnessed skinwalker, wondering what Hinton has already performed but not wasting any time examining his notes. I need only replace the upper pair of arms and perform an after-surgery examination of all exposed parts. We'll finish with a calibration test to ensure nerves are functioning properly.


The skinwalker's arms are destroyed enough that I don't even need to cut the loose tissue. It pulls apart in my hands, and I toss the untangled muscles into a surgical pan beside the harness.


"Burned tissue?" I ask. "That's acceptable for the apéritif?"


"It all gets refined before getting pumped back in," he says, nodding.


"Fucking disgusting," I tell him, lifting an alloy bone from a shoulder socket. I scrape at congealed matter. "These things are fucking disgusting."


It's the first I've voiced my repulsion. I shouldn't be so brazen, not with all that money on the line. But surely horror is on the face of all newcomers. Voicing it must be a rite of passage, I tell myself. I almost expect Hinton to smile or laugh, glad to see me breaking my silence.


He remains mute, back turned, examining a new set of arms on the table. I was never good with people, but being ignored is especially unsettling in this place.


"How must it feel,” I half-whisper, “to become such a monster." I walk around the suspended creature, at first to join Hinton at the table, but now I can stare into its face. Into its big, black eyes.


"It knows nothing of the sort," Hinton says in one laborious breath, seemingly to make it clear he's had this discussion too many times.


I study the overhead LEDs in its eyes. They run around its head. Three pair. Three mouthless, noseless faces. Like an image I'd seen long ago of some deity, Hindu I think, except these were the furthest things from gods.


“It doesn’t think, doesn’t feel.” “I know,” I say, leaning in to scrape the last bits of gristle.


“The entire limbic system is removed,” Hinton continues. “It’s of no use. Their brains are only used for cheap, ad hoc computations, nerve control, pattern recognition efficiency. And the apéritif inhibits memory formation.”


“What about when the apéritif isn’t administered?” I ask, happy to have such tentative conversation. “As in the case of a defective taken off the line?”


“All that remains are pointless artifacts.” He turns to face me, lifting the arm and turning it midair for placement in the chassis. “Anything resembling consciousness is...cut-up stills from a film reel, played to an empty theater. You might as well question what a spider thinks or feels after building a web all day. Both only do as they’re compelled to do.”


I stay silent, mulling over his words and moving to the second socket with my curette. A spider building a web.


“Besides,” he says, his voice a little lighter, “you should relish this time cutting your teeth on patients without mouths.”


“I wondered,” I start to say, but stop short of musing aloud on the polymer spiderwebs littering the abandoned Tren Urbano underground station back home. I’m taking too long, I can feel Hinton’s impatience. And he’s mistaken me for an inexperienced surgeon.


There’s only a bit of hard tissue left. Hurrying, I exchange the curette for a knife, prying it into the socket. I watch the skinwalker’s eyes, big drops of black dew on its pale face.


But while my hand works furiously, my mind wanders to what the spiders thought as they watched me escape Guaynabo, brushing away swaths of plastic netting. They were never meant to weave for the natural world, only to produce cheap micro fibers; would insects pass straight through their webs, leaving the engineered spiders to starve and die out, never adapting? Or would their non-degradable webbing prove just as effective as silk, eventually cocooning the face of the Earth and suffocating all life? Would they weave and weave, never noticing, never a thought?


“That’ll do.”


My hand stops moving, strangling the knife handle. How could the skinwalker’s feeble brain not be struggling to adapt? I lean forward, closer to its eye, watching the overhead LEDs twist, pushing harder one last time against the gristle.


Grabbed from behind, I jerk my hand away with a gasp as Hinton moves in with the next arm, impatient. I realize it as he does--a stream of blood runs down the porcelain-skinned chassis. I’ve slashed the skinwalker, and left a deep incision on my thumb.


Muscles under the skinwalker’s eyes twitch. Hinton is speaking, but the eyes... I want to say something, but I can’t look away from them.


“Forget it,” Hinton says, already returning with a dish of pills and water.


“The eyes,” I manage, watching the muscles continue twitching.


“Report for regenerative surgery tomorrow. You’ll be useless without a thumb.”


****


I thought the pills were antibiotics, but I awaken in my dormitory, a pin-and-needle sensation erupting across my body. Unable to move without the dull ache of recirculation, I lie still and focus on the opioid levity in my blood. I try not to think of the embarrassment, the wasted day, and the memory whisks itself away in favor of a world long gone.


Dark as ever, the sky beyond tells no time.


****


My father was a surgeon before me, a student of San Juan Bautista, and my childhood was one long migration to gradually more respectable apartments. No one cared about Lily in the overcrowded slums, but by the time he had his residency we lived in a secured community. Even caged pets weren’t allowed and neighbors had come to expect a certain amount of quiet.


We covered Lily’s cage with thicker, blacker blankets to simulate night, and kept her covered most hours of the day. But it made no difference. She’d hear our movements and screech for attention. The longer she was covered, the louder she would screech.


Finally, my father moved her cage into the muffled black of his bedroom closet. She would be pulled out every evening until she became too loud. Eventually, she came out only every Friday night for an hour.


Once, we forgot about her for two weeks. I lifted the blanket with dread, expecting only a corpse on her newspaper-covered cage floor. But she sat perched in unmoving silence. That night, she stayed out for five hours without making a noise, until I fell asleep.


Soon, we realized she’d become mute. She sat still for the rest of her life, moving only to her food or water dish. We never had to cover her or put her in the closet again.


It was then that her black eyes started to haunt me. Never moving. Was there nothing behind them? Was she silently judging? Was she forever lost in the suffocating void?


I sat beside her cage every night for a week straight, whispering “I’m sorry,” and hoping for an unfurled crest or cocked head, but her dull black eyes stared back, as darkly cryptic as a security camera lens.


****


I dream of a cold night in Grand Junction, Colorado. The trip and car waiting at this end cost nearly everything I owned, but I had enough to make it the rest of the way to Nevada on my own and stop for a drink at the local bar. They’d left the keys there anyway.


When the bartender asked what business I had in Grand Junction, I was hoping for friendly conversation.


“We don’t do the mysterious stranger bullshit,” he corrected me. “Not in Grand Junction. A nexus like this, we keep the peace.” “Just passing through. Got some extended living family west of here.” I gave him my name, as I’d been instructed to do to retrieve the car.


“Family expecting you, huh?”


“Sort of.”


He considered this and grunted, “Expensive trip. They’d better be happy to see you.”


“It was expensive,” I said. “My dad was a surgeon. Took all he had. I’ve got just enough for a drink.”


I ordered an aged scotch under my breath. It cost more than I should have spent, but I wanted to sound believable. Americans were as desperate for money as everyone.


He flashed a muscular, forced smile and poured my drink.


“Working phones?” I asked.


“No, no phones. Nothing past Centennial or the old mustard gas plant.” He stared for a moment, lost in thought. “Let me go check on those keys.”


I sipped the aged scotch, wondering whether to buy a room for the night or take to the road right away. Scotch was never my thing and I had only ordered it to sound like a person saving their last money for a good drink. Still, I needed to relax. I swallowed a hard breath, then the glass.


The bartender returned with another tumbler. “Got work lined up?”


“No, thanks.”


“I insist.” He filled the second tumbler. “Now, son of a surgeon, got work lined up?”


“Some,” I lied.


“Ever hear of the skinwalker factories west of here? They need some human handlers. Seems every stranger passing through winds up there.” He slid the tumbler across the bar. “I can escort you.”


“Skinwalkers?” I’d heard strange rumors of machines with human brains and skin, but it sounded too ridiculous to be true.


“Name’s just come from old folklore and urban legends. They manufacture stuff for Leviathan-Blackthorne. You know how people get augmented with technology? Skinwalkers are technology augmented with, well… They grow the robot’s flesh parts in vats. All the work’s controlled by a network, but they need humans too.”


“For what?”


The bartender stared through me.


“Not my gig,” I said, downing the glass. "I do medicine, not robotics."


“Oh, I'm sure that knowledge will come in handy for 'em. That's real rare. Two months pay’s plenty to keep going west.”


“Thanks,” I said.


“Everyone ends up there.”


“Thanks,” I repeated.


"If you change your mind before you leave, holler and I'll give you a ride. Make it easy on ya." He slid my keys across the bar and smiled. “Otherwise, the old Mirai out back is yours.”


I staggered out, my intolerance for alcohol working against me. I rest against my new car, taking slow, deep breaths as my heart begins to race. A few more breaths, and then I begin counting again, backwards from fifty.


****


I bypass the quivering and moaning husks of skinwalkers on my way to the infirmary, face and hands again prickling and hot.


Hinton is readying a harness when I arrive. I’m so eager to get the surgery out of the way, I sit in the harness without thinking.


Even though I’m embarrassed, I expect Hinton to laugh. I almost laugh myself, but I have no mouth. He assesses me, squinting, pacing forward, and I feel a needle enter my side.


My entire body yawns, thirsty for air, stuck in time. I stop feeling the harness, and Hinton’s hands. The mildewy stench of the infirmary disappears. My sensations skip like unfocused thoughts.


“How’d it happen?” a voice asks from the doorway.


I try to look around the room, but I’m too tired, and my new eyes are too sore to focus.


“Burn,” Hinton says.


****


I released Lily in Guaynabo before leaving. With her cage door open, we sat for ten minutes, until I pulled out and tossed her body into the air. It occurred to me in those seconds between letting her go and watching her wings spread that she might not be able to fly.


I convinced myself she'd adapt and thrive, though now I wonder if she wound up caught in polymer webbing. It's too painful to think about.


But I’m starting to understand why she stopped crying. When the black cloth of night remains unlifted, and time stands still, you can travel beyond the limits of fear and be anywhere, anytime. You don't even need to close your eyes.

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