‘Autonomous Dispatch’, Anna Ziegelhof

Illustrations © 2021 Fluffgar


 [ Plane, © Fluffgar 2021 ]

Em appeared in the doorway. Nyx cursed.

Consider knocking?”

Nyx scrambled to put some distance between herself and her boyfriend on his sweat-soaked mattress, trying to catch her breath. Em observed their scurrying from the door and smirked. Em wouldn’t mind what she’d seen, but Nyx still felt that some of her actions deserved a certain level of privacy.

Something happened,” Em signed.

Nyx cursed again.

Can it wait?”

Someone is coming for us,” Em added. “We should discuss.

What?

Nyx left her boyfriend’s bed and gathered her clothes from where they had been tossed on the floor. When she was ready to leave, ready to follow Em to wherever they were going to engage whoever was hunting them down, Em blocked the doorway.

No kiss goodbye?”


Tell me!”

Nyx tried to keep up with Em’s long steps as she strode through the sheltered alleys of the desert settlement.

Someone arrived,” was Em’s response. “Let’s go home and think about it.

Nyx took two running steps after the taller woman, lunged and grabbed her shoulder to slow her down.

‘Someone arrived’… Tell me exactly what’s happening, right now.

Em twisted out of Nyx’s grasp and pulled her into a corner, away from the foot traffic of the rusty alley.

The guards found a person in the sand. The person arrived here from the city. It’s possible that their objective is to bring us back. Or maybe to kill us. Same thing, right?

Nyx breathed out and somehow she forgot how to breathe in again. Dizzy and gasping, she slumped against the corrugated metal wall behind her.

No way.

Finally. But why were there blank spots dancing in front of her eyes? Why was breathing so difficult? This wasn’t the time to be faint and weak.

I have to get my weapons,” Nyx signed.

She waited one more second for the black edges around everything to go away, then she tried to push past Em to gather the weapons she had stockpiled, imagining to the point of hallucination what she would do when the moment to take revenge finally came.

Em caught Nyx’s arm, fast. No matter how much Nyx trained, Em would always be faster. She was stronger, too. Nyx’s advantage was her rage. If she revisited the right memories, her fury could keep her fighting for hours, even when her knuckles were already bleeding.

We need to think about this calmly,” Em insisted.

Someone has arrived to kill us and you want to think about it calmly?”

All her strength, all her speed, all her technique! Em could just go and use it on whoever had dared to chase her down after all these years! She could just kill them, be home in time for dinner. It would easy for her. Why did she have to parade that deluded desert pacifism?

Nyx’s fingers clenched into fists, driving her nails into her palms. Her muscles trembled, her vision blurred again. Before she could yell and kick and punch, she found herself incapacitated by Em’s embrace.

Em was usually able to tell apart Nyx’s noisy feelings before she could figure them out herself, never mind put them into signs other than the ones her body gave away. Em understood: what felt like rage was sometimes fear, and both rage and fear were related to sadness and to those awful nightmares in which Nyx had to run away again and in which no respite could be found from helplessness and pain.

Em’s heavy desert coat smelled of burnt eucalyptus and dust. Her hug felt solid and soothing. Her callused hand stroked Nyx’s thin hair. Em let her go after four or five of her steadier heartbeats.

Feel better?”

Nyx looked up into her dark eyes. They looked like home and safety. She nodded.


Six years ago, Nyx was ten, just a little girl. She came to, cold and sluggish. An array of piercing lights hurt her eyes that didn’t like brightness in the first place. She managed to move her head. She saw an arm lying next to her on a gleaming metallic surface. Hers. There was a tube going into it. It went in through a hole in the skin. It ought to hurt, she thought, but her arm felt detached. Her whole body felt that way. Except for her head. The cold hadn’t reached her head yet.

Nyx had always had trouble telling things apart: was she just cold or was that pain? Was that fear or was it rage? Hadn’t they promised her a fieldtrip? Had she been bad again? Whatever it was, it didn’t seem right. It seemed really bad, in fact. Nyx commanded her right hand to pull the tube from the hole in her left arm. Liquids splattered on a tiled floor. Blood, but also some other substance that had been dripping into her. Nyx wriggled until she fell off the metal slab. Her numb, bare feet slipped on the gooey mess on the tiles, but she scrambled back up and started moving, fighting the debilitating cold that had already seeped into her veins. Furious at the pain she felt, she shouldered an orderly in the crotch area. She ran, delirious, wearing only a flimsy paper gown. She took advantage of her small size, her rage, and other people’s surprise.

Somewhere outside, somewhere in the city, she found a hatch that led to a crawl space under a slab of concrete. There she spent her first night on the run from whatever that had been; the bad thing. Then followed a hazy time of sneaking around in the mazes of those twilit areas where the shining city began to turn into rogue desert. There were snatching hands, knowing glances, people who suddenly ran toward her. Ultimately, her bleeding feet tapped across scorching hot tarmac and she came across another hatch, another spot of darkness, too small for her pursuers. It would hide her and allow her to close her eyes for a while.

The next time Nyx surfaced, she found herself across from a pair of angry eyes. They belonged to an imposing desert trader into whose plane Nyx had fled with the last of her rage. The woman’s clothing looked heavy, almost like armor against the poisonous sun, or against anyone who might want to cause her harm. Her face was harsh and angular, her skin the color of cinnamon, her black hair just long enough for a messy braid. She was crouching in front of Nyx’s hiding place, leaving no way to escape. Was it pain or was it mercy when the desert woman tightened her hand around Nyx’s translucent arm and cut out a tracker implant Nyx hadn’t even known was there?


Em preferred thinking about things after a nice meal. So they walked back to the small house they shared on Em’s flight yard on the edge of the desert settlement, facing the open dust. Em assembled a meal from whatever the market had yielded that day. Nyx focused on the colors, the smells, the words and signs: cinnamon, cumin, turmeric; honey, carrots, lentils. The fragrances always charmed the angry beasts inside her head. Em knew that. She smiled. She handed Nyx a plate of food.


After the desert woman had cut out the tracker implant, she tossed Nyx a strip of fabric to stop the bleeding and started up the plane. Nyx spent the flight floating in and out of consciousness, terrified or already beyond it. Eventually the noise of the plane’s engine ceased. They had arrived. Somewhere. Nyx stayed right where she was, cowering in a compartment in the plane’s cargo hold.

Back then, on Nyx’s first night in the desert, Em left a bowl of stew in front of her hiding place. Her hunger and the enticing sweet smell coaxed Nyx out of her shelter eventually.

Why did all this come back now? Because someone had come for them now, Nyx thought.

What do we know?” she asked Em, after dinner.

Here’s what happened,” Em began. “Security informed me that they picked up a stranger in the sand, a woman, approaching our settlement. They detained her. They are interrogating her and already extracted some information. She confessed that she is searching for me, by my old name. My city name.

What was your city name anyway?”

Nyx had asked every now and then, but she had never been told.


“What’s your name?” the tall desert stranger asked, squatting a short distance away from Nyx on the metal floor of the empty cargo hold. Nyx stammered the answer through her chattering teeth. The desert woman shook her head.

“Your voice is too small. Doesn’t matter anyway. Pick a desert name. Everyone who comes here does.”


My city name is not important,” Em signed. “I need you to interpret for me. I want to talk to this person.

Talk! You always just talk-talk-talk. I want to kill her!

In the desert we value life.

There was that snap in Nyx’s head again: a familiar little click that made her go from reasonable, like Em, to trembling with fury in a wink. Em and her complacent desert ethics, when all Nyx wanted and needed was to cause someone pain in exchange for her own.

She is coming from the city to kill you!” Nyx raged. “For running away! For hiding me! I’m going to kill her! I want to kill her! Please let me kill her!


On that first night, after the desert stranger had given her something warm to eat, she also gave Nyx a clean shirt and a blanket and showed her to a cot in her strange little house under the plane’s wing. The light in the house was soft and cozy. The stranger didn’t look angry anymore. She sat down on the cot next to Nyx. Slowly, she reached out. Nyx couldn’t have shrunk away or run again. If there had been any more violence, she would just have given up, she knew. But only a soft stroke to her hair came. The stranger’s gaze registered the tell-tale marks on Nyx’s skin: the seeping wound where the cold stuff had been pumped into her; the ink under her skin where she had been indexed for repurposing, as Em explained later.

Em’s pinky finger stroked across Nyx’s markings. Then she pulled her hand back and ran her thumb over the place near her own collarbone where a tattoo of a thorny vine covered the barcode that had once referenced her own discarded body.

“We’re the same,” she said. “Same. Understand?


Finished eating?” Em asked, leaving Nyx the space she needed after her brain-snaps. Nyx nodded.

Just don’t be disappointed if killing in revenge doesn’t give you the satisfaction you hope for, causes different nightmares.


 [ Danger, © Fluffgar 2021 ] The security officer at the prison facility looked doubtful.

“You may consider the problem taken care of,” he said.

“I prefer to take care of my own problems,” Nyx voiced Em’s response.

Nyx’s breathing had been shallow and inefficient since they had set out from their house to see the prisoner. Her heart was beating into her throat. Her small voice could not convey Em’s determination. Nevertheless, the security officer handed them badges and allowed them to descend into the prison. The elevator took them down for a long time.

From a hallway they stepped into a dim observation room. Beyond a wide window lay a bright laboratory cell. A man rose from a computer. Sine waves wavered on a screen behind him.

“It’s fine,” Nyx voiced Em’s signing. “Just a few questions.”

Em didn’t wait for a response or a prohibition. She simply walked toward the door that led into the laboratory. Announce, then do: an irritating strategy of hers. Em’s grip around Nyx’s arm was inescapable. She was granting the confrontation Nyx had yearned for all these years.

The cell was too bright. Brighter than a desert day. As bright as that laboratory from which Nyx had escaped, six years ago. She blinked and squinted until she was able to decode the image in front of her. On a metal table she saw the body of a woman. She had blonde hair that hung down in tangles. All over her skull, there were electrodes. She was wearing a paper gown. From gaping ports scattered across her skin hung data cables through which the researchers were attempting to extract her thoughts or her programming. She wasn’t quite human anymore. A human body didn’t have ports for cables. She had been made into something beyond human, but right now she seemed to be asleep. Or dead already?

Nyx shuddered. Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to come after all. Her resolve faltered in the face of reality. All her violence, all her fight, had shrunk away.

The woman on the table didn’t look capable of doing anyone much harm. Nyx noticed blistered skin and smeared tear paths that ran down her cheeks. Had she attempted to hike across the sand? What did she even want here? Didn’t she know that Em could easily kill her in self-defense? Didn’t she know that the desert took care of its own adopted children?

Em’s hand reached out and came to rest on the machine-woman’s forehead where cables didn’t sprout.

“Wake up,” Em said, using her voice. She used it rarely these days. It reminded Nyx of her laughter and also of those early days in which Em had taught her not only her language but also what it was like to feel safe again and loved.

Let’s just leave this place and drink some coffee in the market, Nyx wanted to implore, but the assassin’s eyes blinked open. Icy blue marbles with black lenses in the center that alternately dilated and shrank as they attempted to focus.

“They say you came for me,” Em said, stroking the assassin’s human cheek.

The incapacitated assassin shed a tear that followed the path its fellows had run down the side of her face. It dropped onto the metal table. Then her eyes closed again.

“Stay awake,” Em said.

Stay away, Nyx thought, that’s what she should have done.

“So cold,” readable on the small assassin’s lips. Her eyebrows drew together, begging for sympathy. And of course she got it. It was always easy to get Em to do the humane thing. She removed her coat and covered the body on the table with it.

“What’s your name?” Em asked.

Nyx’s hands were icy. This terrible laboratory was freezing. Just like back then. Sluggishly, Nyx’s fingers spelled out the artifact’s spoken response:

“Artificial Retrieval of Intelligence Assistant.”

After a silence, there was a sheepish admission from the thing’s child-like voice:

“ARIA. Just a contrived acronym. I don’t know who I was before ARIA.”

“Who sent you here?”

“Autonomous dispatch,” said the repurposed child through the mouth of the woman-artifact she had become.

Autonomous dispatch? Nyx tried to find an appropriate translation. Em frowned at her.

That’s what she said!” Nyx snapped. “Self-sent? Independently sent? What do I know?

This wasn’t good. She shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be made to be here. Nyx wanted to leave, but Em wasn’t done.

“You sent yourself? Explain that,” Em requested.

The assassin on the table was difficult to understand. Her exhausted, childlike voice cut out at times, leaving blanks to be filled in. Nyx tried her best to interpret.

“My next version was launched. My termination order came. I am used up. I am to be discarded.”

Nyx watched another tear travel down the assassin’s desert-burned cheek.

“But I thought: if I send myself to bring back an escaped body, maybe two, maybe both of you, please? Then I’m sure they will like me again and not put me back into the freezer. Please not back into the freezer, please?”

Nyx bit her lip to keep it from trembling.

“How did you find us?” Em asked her. She shouldn’t have asked that. Something happened. Something wrong. A change came over the engineered woman-child on the table. Her expression turned from meek to scornful. The fear left her face. It had only been there to manipulate, to evoke sympathy. She was not to be trusted. Not even for a second. Not even for pity. Em had been wrong: some lives could be valued, other lives were a danger.

“You thought you could hide?” the assassin hissed, evil, threatening.


Back then, one cold morning early on, Em tossed Nyx a heavy metal rod.

Fight me.

The weight of the rod nearly pulled Nyx off her feet. Even though she had been given a weapon, Nyx suddenly found herself face down on the dusty ground of the flight yard, with sand in her mouth, her arm twisted behind her back, and the metal rod, inexplicably, back in Em’s hand. A hot feeling. Rage—no: frustration—no: elation. Em let go of Nyx.

Look,” Em explained, still slowly then. “I’m very tall. I can’t hear voices. My flight business is famous in the desert. You’re small. Your hair, your skin—so white you can see through it. We can’t hide. People will remember us. Maybe they will talk about us to the wrong people. So you have to learn how to fight.

Nyx got to her feet and spat out sand.

Practice again!” she demanded.


The assassin’s lips twitched into a creepy sneer. Whatever remained of her programming was starting up. Her voice sounded buzzing, tinny, not at all like a human child anymore, when she said,

“Subjects were submitted for biomass repurposing, ten years apart. Illegal egress occurred prior to storage procedure. Tracker signals were lost. The ARIA unit’s purpose is to extract valuable technological secrets, to deceive, to charm, to eliminate. The ARIA unit can be deployed for tracking or retrieval purposes. I promise I can. I promise I still can, you’ll see, watch me, I’m good, I promise.”

The assassin’s eyes rolled back, leaving only a sliver of white under her closing eyelids.

“I know your naaames,” the child’s voice continued to chant, but fading, “I know your naaames…”

The terrifying thing on the table finally fell silent.

Nyx choked back tears. Fear or sadness or fury, it was impossible to tell. She poked Em.

I want to leave.

Em shook her head.

You wanted to fight. Proceed. You brought your weapons, right?

Of course. They hung leaden from Nyx’s holster, hidden under her own heavy desert coat. Em took a step back from the table where the broken assassin was laid out. Nyx moved her trembling hand along her arsenal.

To stab, to slash, to slice? To shoot, to bludgeon, to crush her little hyoid?

None of her weapons would speak to her.

Again.

To crush, to bludgeon, to shoot, to slice, to slash, to stab?

And then, for once, her noisy thoughts calmed. Nyx withdrew her hand from her weapons. This was not what it felt like when she wanted to do something. She wanted to cower and hide, wrap her arms around her head and disappear. She didn’t want to witness the dying body on the metal table. She didn’t want to cause death either.

“I’m so cold,” the child’s voice whispered. Nyx yelled to expel her confusion. Even Em jumped when Nyx’s screech echoed off the tiled walls of the cell. Back then, Nyx had been so cold for so long that not even the pain of her desert-burns could warm her. So cold.

“Nyx!” Em snapped, voice and all. “You can’t do it? Fine. Watch my back.

Shivering but obedient, Nyx staggered to the laboratory’s door. There was darkness in the observation room beyond. When Em began detaching needles, tubes, and cables from the assassin’s body, there was a commotion. The man from the control room arrived to keep Em from disrupting his experiment. It took Nyx only a few seconds to incapacitate him. She kept his arm twisted and her boot near his throat, while Em continued dismantling the assassin. When the discarded artifact was freed from the spiderweb of cables, Em lifted her body off the metal slab. The assassin’s feet hung limp, bare, and blue. Her confused head was resting against the thorny vine tattoo that covered Em’s barcode, her inventory number, her forgotten city name.

So that’s what it looked like from the outside when Em thawed the frozen leftovers of a city experiment, Nyx thought. Something like clarity returned, something like confidence in her ability to predict the outcome of this situation.

In the desert we value life.

Nyx’s weapons weighed heavy.

The nameless assassin’s eyelids fluttered. Nyx went and added the scant returning warmth of her own hands to the new arrival’s shivering body.

“So you’ll pick a desert name, too. Everyone who comes here does.”


© 2021 Anna Ziegelhof

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