‘Her Bones, Those of the Dead’, Tracie Welser

Illustrations © 2012 Miranda Jean



 [ Primary drill, © 2012 Miranda Jean ] The first stage was not a big deal, she just had to give up her body temporarily. She wasn’t fond of it anyway, big-boned under her uniform, swollen around the breasts and hips, and puffy in the uncovered places around her eyelids. Sarah stepped into the upright unit, closed the plastic door and then the bulging, sagging self she disliked vanished. Electrical impulses flowed through her and the world inside the uploader unit, and the habitat fell away, replaced by violet skies, dim sun on the horizon, rocky wasted landscape, and mechanized arms. Her own arms, flabby in low-G, were replaced by a powerful new body that towered three hundred feet tall. Her stride covered hills and twisted, stationary lifeforms that passed for trees. Fluttering somethings circled the monolith Sarah became, a form she inhabited comfortably with a mechanical sigh, her former self shed like the discarded carapace of an insect.

“Engage primary drill in sector five-eight-three grid,” came the soft voice of the Controller, a reminder of the task at hand, the price of her scenic escape. With the barest hint of effort, she swiveled in the mech and in four broad strides reached the excavation site. Three other mechs drilled at pre-selected locations, while another, the loader, labored to remove rubble that was formed by the drills to the sorting site.

She engaged the drill attached to the mech arm, and worked in silence, as always. Fragments of rock, some weighing several tons, flew in all directions, but no sound penetrated her quiet refuge. Other than an occasional mechanical echo of her own heartbeat or breath, she had no reminders that she was not really walking on planet Earth at all.

It was the end of the shift, the return of her senses to her body aboard the orbiting craft, that Sarah dreaded.

A hiss and a pop, and then the white door slid open.

“Why can I hear my breathing, in the mech?” she asked Tech A-5. Cool metal hands unstrapped clamps and confirmed her vitals before the tech answered.

“You are experiencing sensations related to the maintenance of your physical body,” the robot said in lilting monotones. “Involuntary response.” A cool light flickered over her torso as it scanned the identification badge on the shoulder of her gray uniform. “Sarah, you are, after all, still human.”

“But I don’t want to hear my breath,” she said. “I like the quiet of the mech, on the surface.”

“Perhaps you should apply for stage two,” Tech A-5 said.

In the orbiting habitat’s corridor, bodies with masked faces jostled against her, straining and bumping their separate ways through to work shifts, or to cramped rooms where dispensers doled out plastic boxes of unappetizing colored foodstuffs synthesized from reclaimed waste product and proteins. She exhaled as the door of her tiny room slid home behind her. Laughter from an adjacent room broadcast clearly through the walls.

“Another thrilling evening,” she said without humor, and pulled out the long drawer that contained her sleeper unit. She flopped down without removing her boots or mask, and the bed creaked in protest. “Where’s Lindsey?” she asked.

“Lindsey is in the recreation suite,” the smooth voice of the Controller said over the interconsole.

“How many others are there?”

“Two individuals currently occupy the recreation suite.”

“Good.” After a moment, she stood up. “Maybe I’ll go up there.”

“This is your sleep interval, Sarah,” said the Controller.

“I’d rather go to the rec suite,” Sarah said, and stepped in front of the door.

It did not slide open.

“Controller, please open the door.”

“That request is not recommended,” said the Controller.

“Balls,” said Sarah. Sighing, the plump young woman with mousy brown hair slid back down onto the bed and pulled off her mask. She slept with her boots on. She faced the wall and dreamed of open skies.


“Before Earth was used up, people lived and worked on the surface,” the teacher said.

“Balls,” said the little girl in the front of the circle. “My sire said there’s nothing down there but rocks and dust!” The other children gathered at the teacher’s feet tittered.

“Sarah, you are speaking crudely,” said the teacher, “not to mention out of turn. You will observe.” The man, Samuel, touched the dark display screen beside him, and it lit up. The image elicited gasps from tiny mouths all around the circle of students, who until then had only seen the planet below through port windows.

“A barren place, with no life other than a few mutated species with little caloric value,” said Samuel. “But once it was lush with plant life, and animal, too.” A series of scenes followed, depicting unfamiliar shapes and combinations of color: bright greens like a variegated rug against blues and golds resembling hues seen only in paint pots, populated by creatures whose intelligent eyes ennobled human-like but oddly patterned faces.

“Big teeth,” said a wide-eyed cherub-boy, finger firmly up his left nostril.

“What’s that box, right there?” the girl asked, jumping up to gesture, as well as block the screen from view.

“Sarah!” said the teacher in sharp tones. “That’s three marks against you. Remove yourself to the Discipline Room.” A breathless pause, and a dozen pairs of youthful eyes watched Sarah as she walked, head held high in her tiny blue jumpsuit, through the door of the nursery. The white plastic door snicked shut behind her.

“This, children, is a house,” Samuel said. “People once lived on the surface in structures such as this.”


The smack of her fist into the boy’s face was satisfying. A moment of rare pleasure slowly unfolded, and she observed his hazel eyes turning back in his pale, pimpled face as he slid up the bulkhead of the airlock, mask askew, and tumbled ankles over shoulders in the zero G. His head bumped against the wall.

Dimly, her awareness registered the clamor of the warning siren. Sarah floated a few feet above the floor and treaded the air as she was propelled gently backward by the force of her punch. She made her way to the access panel of the airlock, swimming through the empty space, and hesitated a moment, her finger on the button. She savored the silence, the small but free quiet of the airlock.

The boy moaned.

Sarah squeezed her eyes shut and pressed the button. Low G returned, and her feet touched down just as the boy’s prone body thumped, eliciting a louder groan.

The white inner door clanked open, and a maintenance unit waited on the other side, with a discipline unit on the approach.

“The airlock is fully functional,” said the maintenance bot. It detached its data cord from the outer access panel, and the alarm ceased. “User error is the likely cause of disturbance.”

“Brilliant deduction,” she said, arms folded, but the bot was not addressing her.

The discipline bot rolled forward, its antennae swiveling toward the girl. It scanned her ID badge.

“Sarah,” it said. “You do not have prior authorized access to this airlock. The absence of your biocontaminant-prevention mask also violates dress regulation.”

“It’s right here!” Sarah said, punctuating her reply with a shake of the torn mask in her hand.

“You will accompany me to the Discipline Room in this sector.”

“I won’t.”

“Your response is not compatible with expectations of compliance.”

“So?”

A panel slid open, and a rod extended from the torso of the discipline bot, pointing in her direction. A tiny crackle of blue light arched between two prongs on its tip.

“Reconsideration is suggested.”

She gritted her teeth and pointed. “He pushed me into the airlock and tried to kiss me. Why should I be punished?”

The bot’s antennae swung toward the open airlock door. There was a brief pause as it scanned the identification of the prone boy.

“Is Marcus injured?”

“I hope so.”

“I have signaled a medical technician,” the bot said. “You will accompany me to the Discipline Room.” The bot swiveled back to her, but by then, she was ready. She opened her hand to reveal the ID badge she had removed from her uniform moments ago.

“Easy-peasy,” she said, and she attached the badge’s magnetized back to the airlock door before edging away.


“You know,” said the Registrar a short while later, “this continuing pattern of misbehavior makes it hard for me justify a request for your placement in the scholastic program,” She ran a hand through her short, greying curls and regarded the young woman across the table.

The girl said nothing.

“I know what you’re doing, so don’t think you’re fooling me,” said the Registrar. “You get tired of Habitat Three-Four, so you act up, assault a boy in an airlock, and modify your badge, which takes a bit of skill, by the way, and then lead a D-bot on a chase. Then you’re sent by the Controller to the Command module for a talking-to from me. Is that about right?”

The girl looked down at her hands.

“You’ve got another year until you transition from Habitat Three-Four to an ALW module.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said the girl, in a small, dismal voice.

“I want to see you in the higher scholastics. Your scans show you’re bright, and we’ll soon need three new engineers to replace the aging.”

“Um,” the girl began, but the Registrar silenced her with a glance.

“Maybe you would rather work in waste processing?” asked the Registrar. A shadow of a sneer flicked across her unmasked features, rendered them unattractive. “Or teach children in a habitat?”

“No, ma’am,” said Sarah.

“I thought not,” said the Registrar. “Bright minds need to keep busy. I’ve transitioned you early.”

“Ma’am?”

“Don’t get too excited, this isn’t a reward for your behavior, and you won’t go into scholastics until I say so.”

“What will I do?”

“I’ve scheduled you for a orientation in remote reclamation. That should give you plenty of time alone to think about your future before you’re permanently assigned.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That will be all.” The Registrar turned away and scrolled through a workpad imbedded in the tabletop.

The girl stood up to leave. She hesitated at the white door.

“Sire,” she began.

“Don’t call me that,” said the Registrar curtly, without a glance at her. “I’m not a sire any longer, not to you or anyone else.”


Transition was a rapid and cursory event. A human technician handed her a packet of new clothing and escorted her to the shuttle traveling to an Adult Living and Working module. Sarah learned that the major difference between the Habitat life of her adolescence and the ALW module was the color of the uniforms. As a child in the Nursery, she had worn blue; in Habitat Three-Four, orange; and now in Adult Living, her uniform was gray. It fit better than her tight orange one but pulled awkwardly under one arm. She still wore a bio-mask, as did most citizens of the orbital modules, to prevent rapid spread of common contagions that the air system failed to screen out.

The corridors were more crowded, and the food tasted the same. Her room was smaller, and she shared it with an older woman, Lindsey, who previously had the room to herself and did not appreciate the new arrival. Less talk passed between adults as they moved through the corridors, but at least there were port windows in the common areas, and no boys tweaked her breasts.

She started training the day after she arrived. Three older men and a middle-age woman, apparently unsuited for other adult tasks, were her fellow trainees. The reclamation trainer, a rotund woman with thinning yellow hair, showed the trainees images of reclaimer mechs on a viewscreen while the trainees ate stale boxed snacks. Then they ran stage one simulations. Each of the students took turns in a unit that looked like a chair with a series of electrodes lining the back.

“Sit back all the way, now,” said the trainer when it was Sarah’s turn. “Your head has to touch all the electrodes.”

The electrodes felt cool and hard against her scalp on three sides. The trainer slid a head clamp into place. Her arms and legs were also clamped into position, not uncomfortably.

“Relax and just think about moving your legs.”

“I can’t.”

“Close your eyes, dearheart,” said one of the older men.

She closed her eyes and felt a jolt. There was a sound, like static on a disconnected monitor, and she saw Earth. With her eyes closed, she could see open space bathed in low, warm light. The vista seemed limitless, a flat floor that went on beyond the limits of her vision in the mech viewscreen.

“I’m frightened,” she said.

“It’s just like the vid,” said the trainer’s voice. “Think about moving your legs.”

She ventured a glance in the direction of her should-have-been legs and saw the reddish surface far below the towering mech. With effort, she lifted one virtual leg and took a tentative step forward.

“Don’t hold your breath,” said the trainer.

Another step, and then another and another. Excitement thrilled through her. She walked and walked across the surface alone; no pressing bodies, no sound but her own rapid breathing, no walls. She looked up from the ground, and gasping, came to halt. The sky was lit in a burst of fire as the sun crested the horizon.

Awe gave way to vertigo, and the horizon swayed. A cracking noise, and she opened her eyes; five anxious faces looked into hers.

“It’s all right, just breathe.” The trainer removed the girl’s mask and unclamped her head and arms.

“Grab that empty box over there,” said the other woman. One of the three men, gruff but kind, placed the flimsy plastic food container in Sarah’s hands.

She promptly vomited into the box.

After a few more weeks of simulations, she learned that she could ignore her body entirely, and the group began training on the mechs. There were drillers, loaders, haulers and sorters. She enjoyed working the haulers that crawled across the landscape, moving freely under the sky to the sorting depots where rubble was graded by robots for plastics, metals and calorie-rich material.

“Why don’t they program robots to do this hauling?” asked another driver, scrawny and tall. They both stepped out of their upright chambers, rubbing tired eyes. His legs were too long for the standard gray uniform.

“I guess it’s better this way,” said Sarah. “I kind of like driving the remotes.”

“Eh?”

“I said I like it,” she said.

“Want to switch?”

The first shift assignments put Sarah on a loader and the tall man, Gerald, on a hauler, so they traded. She spent six days hauling loads to the central depot from other locations. She started every morning at sunrise, eastern hemisphere; a robot technician, which replaced the trainer, clamped her into a chamber. An auto-timer switched on, and she drove the hauler for four and one-half hours before it switched off again. Sometimes she’d do two shifts if another driver was out.

She sought the sky. The kaleidoscopic ceiling of the morning glowed in reds, oranges, blues and purples above the rutted tracks and excavation pits. The Controller chided the girl more than once as her attention, not to mention the hauler, drifted from scheduled tasks while she gazed upward.

“It’s exhilarating,” she said to her roommate, in one of their shared moments between shifts. After some initial awkwardness, the older woman had warmed to her presence. Lindsey worked as an environmental engineer, and though she seldom spoke of it, she took pride in what she did and looked down on her roommate’s work.

“I don’t see how.” Lindsey continued shoveling something pink and noodle-like into her mouth from a box.

“Really, it’s fun.” Sarah leaned back against the bulkhead framing her bed, hands behind her head.

“Sounds like you need to experience actual fun, so you have a better basis for comparison,” said Lindsey, laughing with her mouth full. “All you do is read mech files and talk about mechs.”

“It’s the sky. You should see it! Everything feels so open.”

“But you aren’t really there.”

“Well, it feels like I am.” Sarah smiled and then put on a pout. “Why do you have to take the fun out of it?”

“Because I know how to have some fun,” said Lindsey, tossing her used box down the recycling chute. “Come to the rec suite with me, I’ll teach you how to play jump-pong.”

Spry for her age, Lindsey turned out to be very good at jump-pong. Sarah caught on quickly to the basic rules, but disliked dashing back and forth. When she jumped, her too-large breasts bounced painfully and made her feel self-conscious. She made a few feeble attempts to serve the little red ball and then sat on the sidelines when her roommate invited joiners for doubles. The rec suite quickly became crowded; she made her apologies to Lindsey and slipped out.

In the noisy common room, she passed a port window. She stopped and looked out over the planet below.

“Afrika,” she said to no one in particular, and then more softly, “sector five.” Her breath condensed in a mist on the window.


“You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” she asked the older driller.

“Eh?” said Gerald.

“Is it true that you’re going to stage two?”

“Who told you?” He stretched, and his long legs seemed stiff.

“Technician A-5,” she said, tilting her head in the now-silent bot’s direction.

He frowned, rubbing his forehead where the strap had rested. “Yes, I’m going, soon. A unit needs replacing.”

“Do you think I could?”

“You’re too young,” he said, with a shake of his head. “Controller’s not going to allow it. Maybe when you’re old and useless like me.” He waved a finger at the stage two unit in the corner.

“Can I watch, when you go?”

“I guess.”

They sat together on the bench for a while, looking at the machine. An auto-timer chimed, and Tech A-5 whirred down the row to assist another driver.

“What do you want to do a thing like that for?” said Gerald, rubbing a rheumy eye. “Downloaded, stuck on the surface all the time. You’d miss your real body, after a while, young as you are. But not me.”

“I wouldn’t miss this body,” she said, looking down at the white floor, and then at the window in the door that led to the crowded corridor.

“They don’t live forever, you know.”

“I know.”

“Power outage or surge or a crash, and you’re done, like the one I’m replacing. Unit memory got lost.”

“I’d like it,” she said. “It’s quiet.”

“It is that,” he said with a little smile.

She had been running haulers and drillers for about eight months when she found the pit. She was on a driller in sector seven, and the ground collapsed beneath her. The mech slid facedown into the trench of soft earth, so deep she could see down in the dark crevice, but not far. The driller gave a groan that she felt rather than heard, and navigation displays went dark.

With a flick of thought, she switched on a headlight.

She saw shapes in the spotlight of her beam, round and white, straight and gray, piled deep and thick. The collapsed trench was over fifty feet wide and filled with human bones.

All around her in the pit, eye sockets seemed to gaze at her from empty skulls, some with leathered skin still stretched tight. She felt a thrill of horror, a sickness in her belly miles away, then unexpected joy. The bones of these dead lay in the earth, touching the soil of the planet in a way she never could. These dead had walked upon the earth with their feet, touched the ground with their hands, seen the sky with their own eyes. Unmediated, the people whose bones lay collected here by the thousands had lived on the planet of their birth with no virtual filter between them and the world.

A readout in her heads-up display flickered and the voice of the Controller said, “Please report status.”

“I’m stuck.” She mentally worked for a moment to move the mech, with no result.

“Another driller is being diverted to your unit’s coordinates,” said the Controller in soothing tones. “Your shift is concluded.”

“No, wait!” Sarah cried. She heard the tell-tale crackle that signaled disconnect from the mech interface, and opened her eyes in the white chamber aboard the station.

A single tear shed for envy of the dead slid down and spattered on her gray uniform.


She was reading a third manual on mechanical engineering when the notice came. She’d been assigned a week of recovery time after the pit collapse, and by happy circumstance, Lindsey had been called away to another module to repair a malfunctioning environmental system. To enhance her solitude, Sarah was enjoying another day of relative quiet, as the occupants of the noisy room next door were both ill and confined to quarters. A tiny plink alerted her to the arrival of the clear plastic notice as it dropped down a pneumatic tube into a slot bearing her number.

Sarah read the notice twice before its meaning registered. She had been given permanent assignment, but not in the scholastic program as the Registrar had suggested. Not to study and then be apprenticed in engineering, as she had hoped. The notice, generated by the Controller based on her intelligence and genetic profile as well as cold calculation, assigned her to Nursery Three as a Sire.

A breeder. For the next eight years, at least, she was expected to bear children for the expanding Habitats.

On the bottom of the rectangular slip, there was an addendum, a note from the Registrar. You’ve got my hips, it read.

“Balls,” she said.


Gerald’s stage two upload, scheduled for the beginning of the morning shift, had been postponed because of technical problems with the suite technician bots.

 [ Stage two upload, © 2012 Miranda Jean ] Sarah met Gerald in the common room, and they stood looking out at sector five as it wheeled past over the edge of the horizon. They walked through the halls towards the reclamation suite, mindful of the jostling crowds of gray-suited adults making their way to the afternoon shift.

“You sure?”

Sarah nodded.

Gerald’s face crinkled under the bio-mask as he gave her a smile.

They stopped at the door of the reclamation suite, and Gerald handed Sarah his ID badge.

“Sure it’s gonna work?” he asked.

“Easy-peasy,” she said. She pulled her bio-mask down to her chin and planted a kiss on Gerald’s wrinkled cheek.

“If they ask me, I’ll just say you stole it, okay?”

“Alright.”

She turned and went into the suite. The door snicked shut behind her.

“Good afternoon, Gerald,” said the technician bot. “Are you prepared for your stage two upload?”

“Yes,” said Sarah, and she strapped into the uploader for the last time.


© 2012, Tracie Welser

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