By Simon Hardman

As Tobias Vaughn regained consciousness he felt none of the emotions or sensations he had known in childhood experiences of anaesthesia. It was less like struggling up from the bottom of a dark well than like being in a darkened room in which the lights were suddenly fired. He was dazzled by the flood of light, sound, sensation, yet he felt exhilarated by it, and did not flinch from it. He delighted in a clarity of vision he had never dreamed possible, his eyes running over the spotless aluminium walls of the tiny cell, and seeing beauty even in their impeccable precision. He could hear the rush of blood in his ears, and feel it surge through his veins and arteries. He inhaled the scent of the abattoir, and relished its foul-sweet bouquet, felt the cold metal of the bench against his back, the scintillation of the finely corrugated surface. He could not move his body, but he felt that there was enough in this room to occupy the remainder of his years. He turned his glance at a peripheral blur of motion and saw a spindly, many jointed silver arm performing some kind of robotic waltz to an accompaniment of pneumatic hisses, the whirr of gears and motor belts. Its torso slid along a groove in the side of the bench, positioning the metal arm alongside his fleshy one, The arm formed itself into an arc which drew it gradually closer to his own until he felt the sharp touch of a blade on his flesh. The attachment began to whine and he felt it slice into his wrist. He felt pain as intense as any he could recall, yet he did not fear it or shrink back from it. He stared in fascination as the machine delicately laid open his arm and began to prise out the red streaked bones.

Tobias Vaughn had been in the air for nearly twelve hours and there had been no prospect of a respite in the near future. When at last he reached his destination, Oakland International, he would have just a day of rest before embarking on an even more arduous pursuit. He was the manager of International Electromatics, and he had decided that it was time for the company to justify its title. So he had taken to the promotion trail, with the hopeless ambition of convincing the American electronics giants that a struggling firm, and English firm, could do something that they could not. He had removed the twist top from his second duty free miniature and emptied its contents into his glass tumbler. Beside him, or rather a foot away from him, as he was travelling business class, an obese American executive was snoring loudly. He had glanced once again at the grotesque form and shuddered. He had longed for sleep, but it was a feat he had never accomplished in flight, no matter how much ‘anaesthetic’ he imbibed. He had then removed the glass from the shallow roundel in his fold-down tray, and begun to sip at it, taking in the view from the small window beside him. It was dark outside, the dark blue of the stratosphere, and below he had just been able to see the slow rolling ocean of the clouds. To the side he had made out a few stars. He had toyed with the idea of pulling down the plastic shutter but then he had seen something above the plane, a display of shifting phosphorescent light filling perhaps a quarter of the sky. He had watched its candy floss luminescence for a moment then turned to the aisle to ask a passing stewardess about the lights. But she was gone, along with everyone else.

He felt a slight tickling sensation by his foot as the machine sealed the last of its incisions. Although still immobile, he felt a rush of euphoria at the new power and strength of his body. It was as though he had never lived before, his former body an impotent shadow. As the machine slipped away out of his view he felt the invisible ties fall from him. He jumped from the bench and began to pace the room, barely able to control the tension within his muscles. The walls around him, gleaming crimson with his blood, seemed now an unendurable prison, allowing him scarcely room to breathe much less to move. He swung his pale fist hard against the wall and saw the metal bulge outwards, before springing back into shape with an insolent clang that filled the tiny cell.

Running along the base of one wall was a small aqueduct, filled with fast flowing water. Seeing it, he recognised for the first time a terrible dryness in his throat and wondered at the true span of his incarceration. He knelt beside the channel and carried the clear water to his mouth in cupped hands. He drank again but now the water tasted sour, brackish. He looked down at the channel and the crystal water tinged red, soon lumps of scarlet coloured matter began to drift by in the stream followed then by a bundle of thick serpentine tubes. White marble specks were mixed into the stream and he picked one out to inspect it. A molar complete with the stringy mass of nerve connections, a silver filling still in place. He looked at the gutter, thick with human detritus, thought of that sour taste and gave a wry smile.

He scanned the room once more, yearning for freedom, and found that something, something he could not identify, was different about the wall opposite the gutter. He studied it more closely and found that a rectangular area, a metre or two across was reflecting light from the fluorescent strips on the roof somewhat differently from the surrounding area. He drew back his fist and slammed it into the centre of the panel. To his satisfaction the panel vibrated, creating a rippling effect in its reflections. He observed the motion for a time and than clasped his hands together. He swung again, striking just as the panel was at the furthest point of its oscillation. It exploded into a spray of tiny crystalline fragments and he felt a strange sense of guilt, seeing the damage he had done. Carefully avoiding the jagged edges of the hole he had created he slipped out of the cell.

He ran aimlessly through the endless corridors outside his cell for many hours, never tiring. All around were polished metal pipes, ducts and machines whose purpose he could not even guess at. The air was thick with a burnt metal tang and the hum of the organs whose arteries he trod. He wanted more than anything to understand the purpose of the being they served, to become one with it. Indeed he noticed that the pulse of his heart, and the rhythm of his breathing had come to match the throbbing of the pipes. But now he had found something he could comprehend. It was a panel, identical to that which he had broken earlier. From where he stood it was transparent. Its inner surface was streaked with brown and red stains. Through it he could see a form which was vaguely human in outline if not in detail. It was covered in a silvery foil from its neck to its feet and on its chest was mounted a rectangular box with a form of grill set into it. A network of pipes, large and small, covered the body and many led into the cavities of the still human face. The face itself was heavily bruised, its crown had been roughly shaven and the nose and ear were missing. Vaughn saw that the face was female. He wondered if this ought to disturb him. He suspected it should, but feeling nothing dismissed the thought. A robotic manipulator was aligning a large cylindrical tube. It slid forward, pushing the object over the woman's head. When it had completely covered the face the mask gave a jerk, shrinking to fit the contours of the object inside. The mask was a construct of smooth shiny metal, with circular holes where the eyes should be and a thin, straight, horizontal slot in place of the mouth. On either side were box-like constructions and sprouting from these were lengths of pipe bent into a rectangle that culminated above at a device something like a miners' lamp. The construct lifted itself upright and seemed to look directly at him. He stared calmly back, unseen. Shortly he turned and ran on down the corridor.

His legs pounded faster and faster, the vibrations shaking his whole frame. The symmetry of the corridor flew by and he felt a colossal thrill of speed, a thrill which spurred him on even when his lungs began to burn with the effort. Odours blurred, the animal scent of his sweat mixing with the electric tang, and the thick smell of oil. Ahead was a brilliant rectangle of white light, and he felt it drawing him closer with magnetic certainty. It loomed larger and larger until its glare filled his view and there was no more ground beneath his feet. He knew the feeling in the pit of his stomach from a thousand dreams, the hopeless finality for the death fall. He looked down as he tumbled but saw only a featureless white plain that grew no closer as he fell. He turned and saw the tiny black rectangle of the corridor and the shining steel rungs of a ladder leading down from it, all the while further from his reach. He did not fear his death, partly because it was certain, and partly because he knew that in some sense that he was part of something greater, something that could never die.

The entrance to the corridor was nearly invisible when he felt the ground once more, momentarily, beneath his feet. The shock of impact was everywhere in his body in one instant. He heard one leg shatter as he tumbled on to his side. He stretched out his arm to slow the fall and felt it jolt out of place. Then his head struck the hard floor with a crack. All was darkness.

As he opened his eyes once more he grieved a little for the destruction of his fine architecture. He had no control of one arm, his left leg lay in a bloody ruin. The floor around him was coated in a thick scum of red blood and green hydraulic fluid which steamed in the cool air. He turned his head and saw the terrible magnitude of the space that enclosed him. There were no visible corners, but he could see a myriad of huge rectangular artifacts, scattered many kilometres into the distance. Tiny silver specks scurried over them tending to the bigger machines and adjusting the steaming umbilical cords that connected them to the surface of the building. Among these fantastic craft he saw a smaller shape in white. It was familiar, with huge sweptback wings, the unmistakable dorsal bulge of the top passenger deck and a soaring tail, the surface painted with the icon of Pan-American Airlines.

He stumbled the last few metres towards the plane and his faulty leg slipped once more from its socket. He dropped to the floor and grasped his thigh, black with bruises, in his good hand and pushed the bone back into his shattered hip. Holding his leg still he lurched under the shadow of a wing, beneath the massive jet engines and up to the orange plastic of the emergency exit chute, and inflatable slide leading, from the open door above and behind the wing root, in a gentle slope to the ground. He tried at first to walk up the slide, but the slick plastic threw his feet from under him. So he crouched on the plastic and drew himself up with his good hand. He reached the top and grabbed onto the metal of the sill, pulling himself into the darkened body of the aircraft.

He stood and began to pace down the aisle, steadying himself on the plush fabric of the empty seats. As he walked towards the front of the plane it became apparent that not all of the passengers had been chosen for the forced conversion he had witnessed earlier. He passed a white-haired woman, her head slumped against the wall of the cabin as if asleep. He reached out to wake her but she did not move under his touch and her skin was pallid and cold. On another seat lay a baby wrapped in pink. He felt pity for these dregs, not because they had died but because they had been unfit for salvation. He pushed aside the red curtain that isolated first class and, noting the numbers on the seats, made his way to his own row. While he had not considered the possibility, he was not surprised to see the gross corpse of the fat American still in its seat. He reached up to the overhead locker, opened it and drew out his travelling case. Then he felt the touch of a cold metal hand on his shoulder.

He slowly placed the case on a seat in front of him and turned under the firm grip to face the cyborg. The circular eyeholes met his own stare and a metallic voice began to issue from its mouth slit.

‘Do you know what you must do?’

He remained silent.

‘Open the case.’

He did as he was ordered and found a layer of blue foam padding. He removed this and saw an array of small plastic boxes. He drew one from its slot in the carved plastic and gazed at it. It bore the insignia of International Electromatics, yet he had never seen any of its kind before. He slipped a switch on its side and heard a tinny blast of music. Then lifting it to his ear he heard a fidelity of reproduction he would never have imagined possible. The silver arm reached down and manipulated another device in the case. He felt for a brief moment a sensation that was a mixture of every kind of terror he had ever known, emanating from that box, and in that moment he knew what was required of him. He would sell the radios and then use that terrible signal to yield up the world into their control. And then the world would be free, free from death and disease, from fear and worry.

‘Will you do as we order?’

He hesitated for a moment and looked at the still form of the American. His waistcoat bulged with the pressure from his swollen belly and his tie bore the recent stains of wine and food consumed in greedy haste. His great bulbous face was wet with greasy sweat and his fat red lips were specked with traces of mucilage. From the corner of his porcine eye ran a small teardrop of blood. He inspected the dead man's features and felt only disgust. He stared into the huge blank eyes of the Cyberman and, smiling, he nodded.


[Tobias Vaughn]
Paul Potiki

This item appeared in Timestreams 5 (August 1995).

Index nodes: Fiction