CUTTING THE CORD


JOSEPH WILLIAMS

Jeff talks backwards when he’s anxious.

One time, he told me there are seventeen thousand different species of centimeter on one cubic bacteria of dust out here. Another time, he told me I’m full of shit.

Actually, he said, “Shit fills you.”

I guess it’s not really backwards all the time. Just incorrectly processed. He assures me he’s not mixed up when I tell him so.

Well, actually, he says, “I am not a mixture.” You get the point.

It sounds crazy. It sounds ridiculous.

That’s just Jeff.

I think his wires have corroded, or whatever the fuck they used to put his brand together. He’s twenty-years old now. They were using a lot of experimental alloys, prosthetics, and processors back then. Regulations are stricter these days.

Anyway, he doesn’t like when I touch him, or especially when I tease him about his wife. She’s been dead for seven years. Her circuits fried having crazy machine sex, but not with him. He doesn’t know who her tango partner was. Hard as the lab coats have tried, androids still don’t have DNA, so nothing was revealed in the postmortem.

That’s why he started talking backwards, he says. Or, ‘chronologically misplacing’ his words.

See what I mean?

I’m on to him now, though. I don’t think it’s part of his mental breakdown. I think he does it on purpose. He thinks if he talks backward then I’ll start thinking it’s actually forward. Like I’m just hearing it wrong. I’m hearing it in the past. I’m thinking backward. Like I’m the one who’s really going crazy. My wires have corroded or something. Programming is fucked. Synapses no longer firing at optimum levels.

“Fuck you,” I tell him. “At least I wasn’t made in a factory.”

I may as well have been.

That’s what I tell myself, not what he says in response. Besides, he’d be agitated after a remark like that, so really he’d say, “Might you have,” or something.

What a prick, huh? Well he’s all I’ve got for company right now.

Dirks told me to cut the cord on this whole mess if they weren’t back in three days. It’s been five, and I already want to slit Jeff’s throat. But we haven’t cut the cord. We won’t until there’s no other option.

Jeff and I fight about this every day. He’s good at taking orders and I’m good at ignoring them. He says that if Captain Dirks told us to cut the cord after three days, then we should have cut the cord after three days. I tell him it’s murder if we don’t give them every chance to get back to the shuttle. He says, “He won’t be happy you disobeyed him.”

But the way I figure it, that’s contingent on his survival. If he’s already dead, it doesn’t matter. And if he survives, well, you’d think he’d be grateful that I didn’t give up on him, right?

“Wrong,” Jeff says.

He left us here because we don’t need to breathe, Jeff says. Just because we survived doesn’t mean they did. They must have run out of oxygen by now. And if we don’t get back to the ship to let somebody know what happened, they’ll just send another, and another, and another. All that blood on our hands, Jeff says.

We’re in a big storage bin that Jeff converted into an emergency medical facility. It’s crude. No windows. No air flow, minimal atmosphere. No gravity. Just two horizontal tubes of light over an eight-by-six steel table which once held core samples and mining equipment before the big wigs decided to give up on this lifeless rock. Sometimes the lights flicker. But we were built to adapt.

Jeff brought along all the important gear from the ship. Scalpels, IVs, sutures, trauma shears, oxygen masks, gauze, syringes, pain medication, anesthetics, anything the rescue party might need. It looks out of place in this huge metal bin, and it takes up a lot of space. We don’t know what sort of shape the Captain will be in if and when he gets back, though, so we have to be prepared for all eventualities. At this point, after five days of exposure, five days’ worth of oxygen used up, the chances we’ll have anyone to operate on are slim. But if we do, at least we’re prepared.

I’m getting close to cutting the cord. I’m close to giving in.

“We have to draw the line somewhere,” Jeff says.

“Where?”

I think the better question is ‘when’.

Jeff talks backwards when he’s anxious. My secret is much worse. I get a-whole-nother personality when I’m overtired.

Overtired, you say? Yeah, it happens to us, too.

Jeff’s here because he’s got a background in medicine. He’s a surgical model.

I’m here because I can see the past.

It’s not what I was programmed for, mind you. I’m a masseuse by trade, or was. It’s a glitch that wormed its way into my system seven years ago.

Can you guess how?

Can you guess what special talent Jeff’s wife used to have?

Besides being a real good lay, of course.

Anyway, they thought it would help for me to come and see if I could pick up the trail of the lost ship. The last signal they put out—an SOS call—supposedly came from the surface of this moon, but I don’t sense anything. The only vision I’m seeing is Jeff walking around his apartment, naked, and it’s creeping me the fuck out. They don’t make the surgical models attractive. Otherwise, they wouldn’t get anything done. They save that for the service industry models, like me. So Jeff isn’t much to look at naked, even in the past. It’s even worse when I have to see him right there in front of me in this goddamned metal box, knowing a part of me had sex with that flabby stomach, those protruding ribs, that bald head.

These goddamned memories.

Memories can be a venereal disease, you know. Apparently, so can the ability to see the past, as long as the Betty you’re bopping fries her circuits mid-coitus.

You get my secret now?

I was the one fucking Jeff’s wife when she died. When I don’t shut down long enough, she starts poking up in all kinds of weird places inside of me. Part of her consciousness was burned into me in her final moment. The ghost in the machine, you might say.

Sometimes, I just want to wear a short skirt and paint my nails.

Don’t tell Jeff, though. He’d either want to kill me or fuck me, and neither option sounds particularly appealing to this bag of bones and wires.

On the morning of day six, which may as well be the night, Jeff puts it to me straight.

“We have to make the decision today. There’s no way they could have lasted this long. They don’t have enough air.”

“Why didn’t you give them the oxygen masks?”

He looks insulted. “Because those are for emergencies.”

I say, “What’s more of an emergency than running out of air on the surface?”

I’m about to go to school. Jeff doesn’t say this, but I was married to him and I know when he’s about to condescend.

“Suppose they made it back just before their reserves ran out and I needed to operate on one of them immediately. It would take hours to get back to the ship even if they went straight to the shuttle, and then it would be too late.”

I don’t like how he’s talking about this scenario in the past tense, but maybe that’s just because he’s anxious. Maybe he’s just talking backwards, ‘cause I’m looking into the past and all I see is Jeff’s pale, hairy ass bobbing up and down the day I (she) made love to him the first time. I don’t see Captain Dirks gasping for air while dust swirls around him in the purplish black wind. Maybe that means he’s still alive, maybe it just means I’m processing the information wrong.

Memories. Save my soul.

I’m so goddamned tired. I don’t know when we’ll be able to sleep again.

“Not until we make the decision. You know that.”

He must not be agitated. I sure as hell am.

Jeff must realize I’m not in the mood for spirited debate or the guilt of pronouncing a dozen of my closest friends dead, because he goes back to whatever the fuck he’s been working on with the medical equipment this whole time. Hooking wires to power packs, unhooking them, hooking them back in. Making crude, leather restraints to hold down his unseen and as yet unidentified patient. Adjusting the two bars of light overhead so they reflect the horrible sterility of death from the dulled steel. It just makes them flicker more.

Like he expects to save someone.

Didn’t this asshole just tell me we need to cut the cord today? Cutting the cord means death. Cutting the cord means leaving a brother behind.

“What the hell are you doing?” I ask him.

“Prepping for surgery.”

Jeff is a surgical model. I’m not. But I’ve seen him work enough to notice the anesthetics are still in a container by the door next to the old archaeological equipment. They used to dig here.

“For who?”

Jeff doesn’t answer me. His brow is furrowed and he’s reading something from a worn datapad. I can’t tell at first whether it’s because he’s trying to sound threatening or if he just doesn’t hear me.

But she knows. She remembers, therefore, I remember.

Before I can stop her, my hands are around his waist and my dry lips are touching his neck.

Jeff doesn’t like when I touch him. He likes it even worse when I impersonate his wife. He thinks I can help it.

“Off the fuck me!” he yells.

I’d laugh if I weren’t so scared. I don’t like when I’m not in control.

He’s agitated. I’m exhausted. That’s not a good combination, but one inevitably leads to the other. And so on and so on, always and forever.

“Relax,” she says through my mouth. It’s really her voice, too. That’s the fucked up part. Probably why he gets so goddamned mad when she pops up. “I know how to calm you down.”

She’s got my lips on his earlobe and my hands on his stomach. I want to die. Jeff wants me to, too. I can actually feel her taking over my thoughts. That’s when the shit really hits the fan.

Two things happen at once.

First, Jeff lets me (her) kiss his ear, waits while my calloused, hairy-knuckled man-hands tread the line between his belt buckle and his flab, watches like he’s scientifically observing them in their natural habitat. He hesitates, we both know it, and that puts him over the edge. He knows he let me touch him, and that brings up all sorts of uncomfortable questions even if he tries to chalk it up to hearing the seductive voice of his dead wife.

So that’s happening.

Jeff was already experiencing some technical problems, as evidenced by his reverse sequential speech patterns and general difficulty with word retrieval. If he were a real person, this would be called a symptom of early onset dementia. He’s not, but it all amounts to the same. And I’m thinking to myself, this can’t be good.

Second, I get a vision of Captain Dirks and he’s gasping for air in the purplish black wind. It’s bad. His oxygen is low, and I can tell just by looking at him that the only reason he’s alive is he took someone else’s tank when they died. But he’s not dead yet, at least, and he doesn’t look like he’s really that close to it. In the same neighborhood, sure, but not on death’s doorstep. Not quite.

I’m glad we haven’t cut the cord.

Jeff has, only it’s a different one. Jeff’s short circuiting.

He wheels around so fast and so powerfully that I go sprawling against the empty bins of medical supplies. Something in my back flares with pain. A pinched wire.

Yes, we feel pain. How else do you keep someone in line?

“You!” he screams, jabbing one, sparking index finger in my direction. He’s shaking, but not the way you would shake. More like the way the road shakes a mile in front of you on a hot day. A humidity shake. “You!” I don’t think he trusts himself to say anything else right now.

I can feel her leaving me, retreating to the safety of my heart and wires. The bitch never had much of a backbone. That’s why she never told him about us.

I guess I could have.

“I can’t help it, Jeff. I swear.”

But it’s too late. Jeff has turned into an unintelligible cyclone of rage and sparks. If I could make out any of his jumbled words, I’d tell you. I can’t.

They aren’t even words anymore. Jeff’s so fucked up now that even the letters are backwards. If he wrote them down, I might be able to make sense of them. He doesn’t.

“Come on, Jeff. We both just need to relax.”

I feel like I’m pleading, but my voice is even. It’s always like this when I’m in control again. Nothing really compares to the feeling of being inhabited by someone else’s ghost, so I’m all relief when I re-establish myself.

“I didn’t mean it,” I try to tell him.

But Jeff’s got his hands locked around my throat. Even with a reinforced neck, he’s crushing my windpipe.

Yes, I have a windpipe. Don’t you?

“Bastard!” he shouts.

I’m proud of him for getting that word out. He’s really pissed. His wires need tightening.

My heightened anxiety brings her up again, and even though I try to push her back down into my waste compartment, gravity’s not what it seems and she just keeps floating up through my throat through the grips of Jeff’s strong, bony hands. Tight spaces never bothered her.

“Jeff,” she begs. I don’t know how she can get her voice through, but she does.

Jeff screams and squeezes even harder. The sound of her voice infuriates him.

The pain is a dusty, purplish black wind and the world is fading. The lights flicker. A single ray reflects into my left eye from the makeshift operating table. I’m drifting. But she’s in my head now, in my lips and in my tongue, so another vision hits me like a rocket.

Captain Dirks was three kilometers away two hours ago. He should be here soon, but it’s been slow going. There are too many hills. His legs are getting tired. I wish I knew if he’d get here in time to save me, but she only sees the past. I don’t understand why fortune teller models are programmed that way, but maybe it’s to prevent war. That would make sense, I guess.

Then, she’s gone and I’m back in the real world, thinking at least I got a moment away from the pain.

When Jeff drags me to my feet and slams me onto the operating table, I’m just north of consciousness. When he pushes my face against the cold steel and tightens the crude leather restraints on my legs, I’m somewhere south of it. She sees everything in the past, though, and she jumps forward now that I’m too weak to resist.

I can see everything, but there’s a two or three second lag between transmissions even in this special circumstance, so I’m reacting to everything too late. Jeff ties my left hand down and I’m resisting it two seconds later. He jabs the scalpel into my stomach, and even though I feel the pain in real time, I don’t see it until she shows it to me. She’s no help.

I think she’s doing it on purpose. Punishing me for being such a great lay that I could fuck a woman like her to death. Literally blow her mind. Wouldn’t you want revenge for that?

Are all ghosts so mean-spirited?

Jeff opens me up without anesthesia, without an IV, without pain medication of any kind. That must be a good thing, because the pain is so blinding that I’m wreathed in darkness for a while. He keeps working though, probably muttering something like, “Fuckmother kill. That I’ll him.” He’s off the deep end. Someone cut his cord.

Meanwhile, he’s trying to cut mine. I think he’s forgotten all about Captain Dirks and the rescue mission. Guys like us aren’t supposed to be so unstable, that’s why they left us here instead of a couple of real army Joes. It had almost nothing to do with oxygen and food and water, and everything to do with our propensity to ignore the deeper questions of life and death.

We still feel pain, though.

Right now, I’m probably feeling more of it than you’d ever feel in ten lifetimes. The curse is that we feel it but sometimes it’s so much that our systems are overloaded and we can’t react. Can you believe that? Some people work their entire lives to be like that. Not numb, but calm in the face of a knife severing tendons, wires, motors, processors, hearts, and identities.

Jeff’s cutting my cord, but not gently. He wants to shut me off but a lobotomy isn’t enough.

“Jeff, please,” I say, but I’m buried beneath that other consciousness now. He’s re-routed my mental processes and I’m wallowing in the pit of my stomach even as it’s naked to the world.

But she’s come forward, she’s stronger than ever, so I know Dirks was at the door to our sanctuary seventeen seconds ago.

What the hell is taking him so long?

And what is Jeff doing with the broom and the archaeological paint brush over by the old mining equipment?

Five seconds ago, he was bending over me with a crazed grin. Three seconds ago, he kissed my dead, open mouth with too much tongue.

And before I know what’s happening, she’s kissing him back with my hand behind his head.

“My God, Jeff,” she says. She’s (I’m) starting to cry. “God I’ve missed you so much.”

“Mutual affection,” Jeff says.

He helps her to my (her) feet.

And I’m somewhere buried inside all of this.

At least I know that Dirks started opening the door three seconds ago. He’s gasping in a purplish black wind, but he’s never looked so relieved in his life. Salvation is right around the corner for us.

But something’s wrong.

For just a moment as he falls into the makeshift surgical room, I see things through his eyes.

Jeff’s sparking all over the place. He’s grinning and seizuring as his systems start to fry, but he’s still holding her hand and she’s got her arm around his waist in the flickering lights.

The blond bristles from the broom cover my head. Jeff’s painted my lips red with the blood from the procedure, only his hands were so spastic that it’s splattered all over my face. I look like an animal after feeding, or like I just made out with someone’s jugular. He’s cut off the legs of my pants so that it looks like I’m wearing a short skirt. My stomach is still open, and I’m somewhere down there.

But she’s somewhere up in the real world.

Dirks is on the verge of death. He can’t believe what he’s seeing.

And the new-old couple limps toward him with outstretched arms. She bends over the Captain in my dead body and plants a kiss on his lips.

“Welcome home, Captain,” she says.

“Homeward death,” Jeff says.

I don’t know what the fuck that means, but I’m in it for the long haul.

SPECIAL FEATURES

“Cutting the Cord” by Joseph Williams…is a clever story about robots so human-like that they experience love, jealousy…and revenge. Immediately captivating.” The HorrorZine