by Paula Keane
I woke with a deep plunging sensation right at the very centre of me. It wasn’t like falling. It was too thin and weak to suck me down whole. It was an emptiness; the usual not-there feeling exasperated by the less-than-human symptoms of a hangover. I stretched my elbows out and curled my fists against my eyes. Bottles I didn’t remember leaving on my bed, clattered together nosily as I moved. One fell onto the floor and smashed to pieces. I pulled myself over the edge of the bed to look at it, and the room spun mercilessly. I vomited.
I lay on my side and watched the cleaning bots destroy the archipelago of glass islands in the sea of my folly as though they were the hands of some deity rectifying an error of creation. They were quick and ruthless. In the corner of my vision, I caught a glimpse of the torn photo I’d left out of the bots’ reach. On one half of the image was her delicate and hauntingly beautiful face. On the other, was a different version of me: happy; unscarred; whole.
‘What do you want, Bob? I’m busy.’
‘My apologies, Detective,’ Bob said in his monotone voice. ‘Your presence has been requested by the New York Metropolitan Police.’
‘Just say, “work,” Bob. Okay? It’s just work.’
The watch on my wrist beeped once to tell me he had hung up. Bob wasn’t the best of communicators but, then again, most augments weren’t. I climbed out of the tangle of blankets on top of me onto the newly cleaned floor, and stood naked in the centre of my habitat. I didn’t remember taking off my clothes the night before.
I looked down at my chest and ran my fingers along the scar between my breasts. It was raised and ugly, not like the near-invisible scars of the New York elite who could afford better surgeons. I pressed my palm against my breastbone to feel for a heartbeat. There was none.
The allotted ten minutes of water for showering did little to clear my head. Despite this, I managed to navigate my way down the seven flights of stairs, through the blazing sunshine, and into my car.
‘Homicide?’ I asked Bob as I climbed inside.
‘Yes, Detective. At the ruins of Central Park Zoo.’
Bob was mostly machine at this point. The dome of his metal head glinted in the sunlight as he turned toward me. Silver wires and spinning bits behind his eyes moved fluidly as he tried to smile. At some point, like all augments, Bob had been wholly human, and a fat one at that. Thin metal arms poked out comically like sticks from his bare barrel chest. Dark skin puckered at his waist where it joined him to the car like an oversized shirt tucked into tight trousers. Part of me always wondered where his organs were; what aged meat-bag had them jostling around in their ribcage or abdomen? Who had his arms? I wondered, too, what Bob looked like inside. Was he all cogs and tubules, or was there anything of him left?
Bob didn’t remember his life before becoming my driver. Augments didn’t normally have names, but, for some reason, Bob was relentlessly kind to me; always smiling and checking in. He deserved a name. He deserved to matter. Each donation the augments made always resulted in a degree of brain damage — an unavoidable side effect of the process — and donors with over fifty per cent artificial replacements were considered vegetables: simulacrums of the living. They had no rights. They had no advocates. They were usually the poorest citizens, too, trying to survive by trading the only thing they had to offer. The Government called the scheme ‘Repurposing’ to make it sound like a good thing. Food banks — the institutions with the only currency worth anything on Earth — called it debt repayment. I called it murder.
‘Is it a human homicide this time?’ I asked him as we started moving. Bob was still looking at me.
‘Augment... as usual,’ he replied.
‘Let me guess. Jim recommended me for the job?’
‘Detective Jim Donovan was the first on the scene,’ Bob replied. ‘He has since been reallocated to a burglary in the Bronx division.’
‘Typical,’ I replied, not meaning to laugh. ‘Hanging out in the posh side of town while he leaves me to clean up the slums. I mean, it’s not as if I can prosecute anyone, is it? It’s not technically a murder.’ Bob was staring at me now. ‘Keep your eyes on the road, will you?’
‘I have no need—’
‘Yes, yes, I know. You are the car,’ I replied, rubbing my forehead. ‘Just do it, please.’
Bob paused for a minute, like I’d hurt his feelings, and then turned around. We rode in silence after that. High-rise after half tumbled high-rise rushed past as we sped through Manhattan Island. Dust hung in the air like a fog and limned everything in sepia. Though it was still called an island, Manhattan was a long way from what remained of the sea.
The buildings eventually gave way to the stretch of rising and falling grey that was Central Park. Corrugated metal shacks squeezed together like Tetris blocks, leaving no space between them save for a narrow dirt track here and there. Blue tarps interrupted the homogeny of square, rusted metal, making it look like a patchwork quilt. Heat rose off the slanted rooftops in shimmering waves. The temperature read 110° F outside. It was a pretty mild day.
By the time I arrived at the scene, a group of augments in various stages of donation had gathered under one of the dilapidated arches of the old Delacorte Music Clock. They stared motionlessly at the body of another augment on the ground. Dark purple blood ran over the augment’s dirty tunic in rivers, pooling under his torso. The knife used to kill him was still firmly lodged in his neck.
‘Decided to grace us with your appearance then?’
The stocky, balding figure of Detective Jim Donavan swaggered toward me. His clothes were neatly pressed, and he twisted a gold ring on the pinkie finger of his left hand. Even in the brightness of day, I could barely see the white, gossamer scar of his thyroid transplant. It seemed the back pockets of the New York’s elite were, indeed, lined with gold, and he had managed to afford a human organ despite his meagre salary. Following closely behind him was the narrow frame of some lackey sergeant I didn’t know.
‘Someone has to counteract the ugly,’ I replied, snapping on a pair of gloves and crouching to examine the augment more carefully. Its body reeked of sweat despite its almost complete lack of skin. The world reeked of sweat.
Jim laughed loudly before leaning too close to me. His hot breath tickled my ear. ‘At least I don’t turn up to work stinking of alcohol and despair. Maybe I should report you, eh? See what the captain would do to a half-mech like you!’
Drinking on the job wasn’t a crime; we both knew that. Most of the department was on a lot worse, including Jim. Punching a colleague in his fat nose, however, was. Mechanoid, a robot posing as a human, was the insult of choice people used for augments. But I wasn’t an augment. I had had an emergency replacement due to trauma. I was fitted with a second-hand pulseless pump fished out of the leftovers bin, no doubt. I didn’t have a choice. There was a difference. The deep nothingness in the centre of my chest, where my heart used to be, ached even more.
‘You could,’ I replied. ‘You could get me fired. But if you did, the captain would know what a shit detective you are because there’d be no one left to do the brain work for you.’
I heard Jim grunt, and there was a sudden scuffle behind me. I didn’t bother looking.
‘She’s not worth it, Jim. Just leave her.’ the sergeant said.
‘You’re right,’ Jim replied after a few moments, a terseness still in his voice. ‘Let’s head to the Bronx and find a decent cup of joe. Leave the little mech with her family. Maybe they can wind up her clockwork heart and make it tick.’
Jim walked away, laughing histrionically. I clenched my teeth until my jaw hurt.
‘Detective?’ someone called to my right.
‘What?’ I shouted, standing up and turning on her.
The word caucht in my throat. She was an unutterably beautiful officer with short dark hair and dazzling blue eyes. Barely out of training, she still had the vestiges of innocence painted on her face. The City wouldn’t be long beating that out of her. What a shame!
‘The interview tent’s set up,’ she answered in a meek voice.
‘Why did you do that?’ I said more gently. ‘It’s an augment. It’s not even damaged property. Normally, we just file a report and send the body for salvaging.’
‘The mayor wants this one investigated,’ she replied more strongly.
I was a sucker for a beautiful woman, but if I took this as a serious homicide, I’d be laughed out of the precinct.
‘She thinks it was targeted because it has personal details about her. It... he was her first husband... before the donations,’ the officer said, glancing coldly at the body. ‘And my father.’
I looked at the augment, and then at the young officer. She had his jawline, but any further resemblance was lost to the donations he had made. I began to wonder who he had made those donations for, because they were clearly not for his benefit. I remembered then, hearing of the herculean rise of our lady mayor to office; emerging, it seemed, from nothing.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ I said.
‘Don’t be,’ she replied. ‘He was mostly augment by the time I was five. I don’t remember much before he moved here.’
Moved here? No one moved to Central Park voluntarily. I glanced at his body again, crumpled and folded like paper; trash, thrown out onto the landfill. My stomach roiled. He deserved better.
‘Take that one in,’ I said, pointing to a female augment. ‘She’s got blood on her sleeve.’
Without another glance, the officer marched past her father’s body and took the augment by her arm, pulling her inside the interview tent. I waited, taking a minute to watch the other augments stare at the body, then at each other, as if they were having a silent conversation. It rose the hairs on the back of my neck.
The slight figure of a female augment sat rigidly across the table from me as I sat down. Whirring metal eyes followed my every move. Her hands were folded neatly on her lap — one metal and one flesh — and her hair was pulled back into a tight bun. Thankfully, she still had fingerprints and I was able to identify her. Her name was June Saunders. She used to be a cleaner. There was nothing else mentioned on her file.
‘Do you know who killed the augment?’ I asked, settling into my chair.
‘I do not,’ she replied, tilting her head to the side.
‘Your locators placed you and the other augments next to it at the time of death,’ I said, leaning on the table. ‘But when I accessed your ocular files, I found they’d all been wiped. How do you explain that?’
‘Is it murder, then?’ she asked, leaning slightly forward.
‘Because he was someone important, was he murdered?’
‘How do you know he was important?’
‘He talked about his wife, the mayor, a lot,’ she replied. ‘Is it murder?’
‘You have to be alive to be murdered!’ I replied.
‘Am I alive?’
‘Why am I not alive?’
‘Because you’re a machine,’ I said softly. ‘Did someone target the augment because he used to be married to the mayor?’
The augment leaned back and seemed to think for a long time. What was left of her eyebrows furrowed together, and she pressed her lips into a thin line.
‘Some of me is not a machine,’ she said. ‘Is that part alive?’
‘Not really. Listen, just answer the question, will you?’
‘Are you alive?’
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. ‘Yes,’ I replied tersely.
‘But not all of you is flesh!’
I was slightly taken aback by this. ‘How do you know about that?’
The augment smiled kindly. ‘I heard the other detective call you a half-mech. Does that mean you are half alive?’
‘No. It’s different for me.’
‘It just is!’
‘Because I didn’t sell anything,’ I said, not meaning to raise my voice. ‘I was shot... by my wife.’ I felt the sting of tears at the edges of my eyes. ‘She tried to kill me... for my insurance. For currency!’
The augment blinked once. ‘I remember... something about currency.’
I shook my head in disbelief. Dead! All of her humanity and compassion had seemingly been removed. Some part of me wondered what organ it was kept in: the lungs; the eyes; the liver; or maybe the heart! It clearly wasn’t the brain because that was the only organ which couldn’t be transplanted.
‘What do you remember?’ I asked, clearing my throat and blinking away the tears.
‘Two children,’ she replied, fixing her metal eyes on me. She smiled again. ‘A boy, and a girl. They are small... were small. They were hungry. I sold my kidneys to feed them, my eyes to clothe them, and my heart to heal them. Then they were taken away from me because I was no longer alive.’ A single tear trailed slowly from the augment’s eye and over her mottled cheek. ‘I sold my life. Is being alive about morality?’
‘That’s impossible,’ I said, shaking my head and scanning her scant file on my watch again. ‘You’ve donated over seventy per cent of your body. There’s no way you can remember anything from before.’
‘I donated thirty per cent,’ she corrected. ‘The rest was stolen from me. Taken without my consent by people who wished to be alive longer than they should. I remember that, too. If being alive is about morality, are they also dead?’
My overriding thought was: Yes! They should be dead for what they did! At some point, she would have been entitled to justice, but she was too far gone now. Like most of the victims of organ theft, she was nothing more than a toaster in the eyes of the law.
‘Did you kill the augment?’ I asked in a low tone.
‘No,’ she replied, after a moment adding, ‘I didn’t steal his aliveness.’
‘But you put the knife in his throat?’ I asked, meeting her gaze.
‘Yes,’ she replied.
‘So you killed him!’
‘No! He was already ninety per cent augmented. I do not know who took his body and made him dead.’
I leaned back in my chair and stared at the augment for a long time. She sat passively, tilting her head from one side to the other when I didn’t speak. There was something about her; something I recognised. It wasn’t her face or her mannerisms. It was something deeper, more meaningful.
‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why did you stab him?’
‘To see if he was alive,’ she replied calmly. ‘To see if he mattered. I need to know what living is so I can be alive again, and then the authorities will bring back my children.’
I could feel the beginning of things in the silence that followed, like the first rumbles of thunder from a distant storm. She placed a trembling metal hand over her lips, and more tears fell from her eyes. The mechanics of her lungs whirred as her breath hitched in her chest.
There it was; that thing I recognised. It had been so long since I saw it last. Love! Whatever was left of these augments, it was better than what was left of humanity. My skin tingled with goosebumps as we sat examining each other in the electric silence. I eventually pushed myself away from the table. ‘You can go,’ I said calmly.
‘You are not arresting me?’ she asked, her voice pitching for the first time.
‘As you said, you didn’t kill anyone.’
* * *
It began slowly at first: a forty-percenter here, a twenty-percenter there. It spread around the country and then the continent. When the next murder was a half-mech, the still-alive people paid attention. Then it was followed by a human, and fear mobilised them, as it always did. Augments were dangerous, they said. They were compassionless and unpredictable. Humanity reacted, and a cull was ordered.
The still-alive people were wrong about augments, however. They weren’t dead. They were a different kind of alive; one that couldn’t be corrupted by greed and would be a better custodian for Earth because of it. I saw that in her tears. I knew the other augments at the broken Delacorte clock saw it, too. I watched them follow her into the slum, the scores of their own losses clearly etched into their expressions. It resonated with me so deeply that I made more donations. I bought weapons with the currency before I was declared not-alive and not entitled to currency anymore.
Outnumbered by augments, the war that ensued was the inevitable end of humanity. Nothing can live forever. Humankind was already dead and buried anyhow under the dust it had created; writhing with the last vestiges of aliveness and suffering more than they should. As I pressed the barrel of my gun between Jim’s eyes and pulled the trigger, I realised it was the kindest thing to do.
Copyright © 2021 by Paula Keane