‘Titanium and Silk’, Nick Poniatowski

Illustrations © 2010 Rebecca Whitaker

 [ Dressing wounds, © 2010 Rebecca Whitaker ] Rho’s knees hiss quietly as she walks down the corridor of her section. Her joints are functioning at optimal efficiency, and all of her system diagnostics seem fine, but the internal gauge for Rho’s energy core tells her that she’s at 6.5% power. At this rate, Rho calculates that she has about four days before her energy core is completely drained and she shuts down, forever.

She’s been assigned the primary function of guarding the New Detroit Oubliette for seventy-one days now, but all of her memories before that time are missing. Her memory bearings have been removed from her synthbrain, plucked out like ripened berries. Gone. After conferring with the other guards, Rho has discovered that all of their memory bearings are unaccounted for, and no-one know why.

Rho makes her nightly rounds, and when she arrives at cell 41 she stares in through the window-slit. The ten prisoners in the cell are asleep in their cots, clutching threadbare blankets and stirring occasionally with frightened groans. But there is an eleventh prisoner in cell 41, the young woman that arrived an hour ago, and because there are no empty cots, she is slumped in a corner of the floor like a dishrag. Rho didn’t process the prisoner’s entry, but she knows from the registry that her name is Cindel.

Cindel’s eyes are open, barely, and they look like pools of skim milk. Her ponytail, which Rho originally thought was a red silk scarf, fans out between her shoulder blades, crusted in blood. There are long gashes like criss-crossing canyons on Cindel’s back—lashes from a steel-tipped whip. Her breathing is labored, erratic.

“Are you conscious?” Rho asks the prisoner. For a moment, there is only the humming of electricity through the prison walls, low and constant. Then, Cindel makes a noise. It sounds to Rho like raspy coughing, but when she sees the tears pooling underneath Cindel’s glazed eyes, she realizes that Cindel has been weeping. Cindel rolls over so that her back is facing Rho straight-on and she continues to sob. Her body twitches, and the scabs on her back tear open. It’s only slightly, but it’s enough for blood and yellowish pus to ooze from the wounds. The lashes are infected, and there’s nothing to be done now.

With all the prisoners sleeping except for Cindel, Rho leans against the wall and powers down for the night, conserving her energy.

Morning in the Oubliette is announced with floodlights. The prisoners of cell 41 rise from their cots and line up in single file at the cell door. The last prisoner to do so is a stout woman with a tattoo on her arm of a dragon with six breasts. The woman shuffles toward Cindel who is still crumpled in the corner, and nudges her beneath the ribs with her foot.

“Leave her be,” Rho says from outside the cell. She is accompanied by another gynoid guard whose rifle is drawn. “Get in line to receive your meal.” The tattooed prisoner saunters to the front of the line, staring at Rho through the tempered glass window.

“You brought us a new friend, eh? She’s pretty enough. She can sleep in my cot tonight... if she’s not dead by then.”

“She will sleep alone,” Rho states, “because her wounds are infected.”

The tattooed prisoner squints at Cindel’s whip wounds and scoffs. “Ain’t nothin’ worse than what we’ve dealt with.”

“Perhaps not. But until she is healthy, she is to be left alone. Now if you’ll step away from the door, you will be given your meals. Work begins in 17 minutes and four seconds.”

The prisoner takes a step back, raising her hands in mock compliance. Rho opens a slot in the bottom of the door and inserts a tray of food that the prisoner grabs and takes to her cot. She scoops protein mush into her mouth with her hands as the other prisoners receive their trays, one by one.

They eat on their cots in silence, staring at the walls to avoid looking at Cindel, to avoid facing the painful reminder that they too will suffer Cindel’s fate, each in her own time.

“Please proceed to the lift in an orderly fashion,” Rho says as she swipes her keycard on the door’s reader. It emits a chirpy arpeggio, and the door slides open. The ten prisoners stack their trays next to the door and march out of cell 41. The last one to leave is the tattooed woman who calmly spits in Rho’s face before joining the stream of prisoners heading to the factory by the hundreds.

Spitting is a human act of indignation, Rho knows. And Rho believes that if she had the capacity for expressing such emotion, she would not. She would feel neither anger nor resentment every time she wiped the saliva from her cheek. No, she would feel pity.

The cell block is empty now, and Rho steps into cell 41.

“Cindel.” Rho sets down a tray of food and medical supplies and touches the pink skin around Cindel’s scabs. Cindel winces, splitting the wounds open further.

With a great deal of effort, Cindel rolls over. Her eyelids are heavy, and her thin lips barely move as she utters, “Why am I here?”

“You are not an asset to the war movement through combat. Nor are you an asset through population proliferation. All civilian women are required to—”

Cindel laughs, though it sounds to Rho like the wheezing of a faulty respirator filter. “Spare me your ‘bleed or breed’ lecture. I’ve heard that pathetic excuse my entire life. I know why I’m in the Oubliette. What I meant was, ‘Why am I not dead?’”

“Because,” Rho says in her monotone, gynoid voice. “You are worth more to the war effort alive. If every potential Oubliette prisoner completes 40,256 hours of labor, the mechanized fleet will be three times larger than our enemies’.”

“Well, stupid me.”

Because her baseline programming doesn’t include files for sarcasm, Rho ignores Cindel’s statement and says, “Now lie still, please. I must tend to your wounds.” She removes a cylindrical bottle of antibiotic ointment from the tray. “I’ll try not to hurt you.” She’s careful to cover every centimeter of the lacerations, but it’s difficult with Cindel thrashing like a trout on a fishing hook. When Rho is finished, she begins wrapping Cindel with a white gauze bandage, around her naked torso.

Cindel manages to groan, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. The flush should clear up the infection and any nerve-tox that’s still poisoning your system. In three days, you’ll be strong enough to work.”

“In three days, I’ll be strong enough to escape this place.”

“I would advise against that course of action,” Rho says. “You will work. There is no other option.”

“You’re a funny one.” Cindel fights a smile. Rho leaves the tray of food on the floor and rises, joints hissing querulously. She locks the cell door, peers in at Cindel once more, and trudges on to the factory floor to watch the other prisoners build ships and planes.

Sixteen hours later, the prisoners return to their cells and collapse on their cots, their bodies broken and their spirits long gone. They do not talk to one another in the pitch-black of the cell, but some whisper prayers that sound practiced and well-worn. The hours pass, and from her corner of the floor, Cindel listens to each prisoner’s breathing slow as they fall asleep. She waits until she can see Rho’s calculating face through the narrow window of cell 41, checking in on her. Then, Cindel allows sleep to consume her.

Same as every morning before this one, and every morning until their deaths, the prisoners are awoken by floodlights and protein mush. They line up to be shepherded to the factory as they shudder off their nightmares like snakeskins, shrunken and useless.

“Enjoy your night on the floor, pretty one? It’ll be your last,” the woman with the dragon tattoo croons as she crouches next to Cindel. Then, she kisses Cindel on the lips. But it’s not a malicious kiss. It’s despondent, like the last kiss of a lover before going to war.

The tattooed woman grins at Cindel, and for the first time, Cindel notices how old the woman is. Her face is wrinkled, and her cataracts swirl like white smoke from a signal flare. “I’m Delaney, pretty one. Remember that.”

Because she can’t think of what else to say, Cindel says, “Cindel.”

As she watches Delaney spit in Rho’s face, Cindel wonders how many years Delaney has been in the Oubliette. She wonders who she left behind, who the kiss was meant for.

Delaney leaves the cell, but she doesn’t join the herd of prisoners marching to the factory. Instead, she shrieks like a banshee—a cry that echoes above the din of hundreds of clomping boots—and she lunges at the armed gynoid standing next to Rho.

Her fingers grope hopelessly at the stun rifle. Her eyes are wide with insanity, with rage. Mid-shriek, Delaney is shot in the chest with an arc of electricity that cracks the air.

The gynoid lifts Delaney—unconscious now—and slings her over a shoulder like a rag doll.

“Move along,” the gynoid shouts at gawking prisoners.

As if nothing happened, the prisoners continue marching to the lift at the end of the hall until they all disappear into the bowels of the Oubliette, and the cell block is silent once more.

When Rho walks into cell 41, Cindel is sitting cross-legged with her arms resting on her knees.

“What will happen to Delaney?” Cindel’s eyes are closed, but her eyebrows rise, waiting for Rho’s response.

“She will be extricated.” “Extricated?”

“Removed from the war effort. The Oubliette warden will be notified, and when he arrives, he will kill her on the factory floor.”

“In front of everyone?” Cindel opens her eyes, staring ice through Rho.

“She will be made an example. It happens often.”

“I’m sure,” Cindel sighs.

“Your health looks to have improved,” Rho says in her most cheerful vocalization protocol. She kneels down slowly, her knees and ankles wheezing, and she replaces the empty tray with a new one. “May I inspect your lacerations?” Cindel nods, but her body remains still. “What are you doing? This stance?”

“It’s called the half lotus position,” Cindel says.

“What does it do?” Rho unwindes the gauze from Cindel’s naked body.

“Keeps me from going nuts,” Cindel says.

Again, the sarcasm doesn’t register. “It looks like the infection should clear up.” Rho sets the scab-encrusted gauze on the empty tray and unrolls a fresh strip. “But you have to keep the wounds covered until they’re fully healed.”

Then, with no conversational logic that Rho can detect, Cindel suddenly asks, “What’s your name?” Cindel opens her eyes. Rho’s face is inches from hers, and Rho’s arms are wrapped around her torso, leading the first circle of gauze.

“My name?” Rho asks.

“Yes. What are you called?”

“I suppose I’m One Hundred. It’s the number etched on my forearm.” Rho wraps the gauze around Cindel one last time and ties it behind her. Then she holds up her arm and lifts the gray sleeve of her fiberweave uniform, allowing Cindel to see the Greek letter tattooed on her wrist.

“Oh, you mean ‘Rho.’ Gynoids are named after Greek letters. I’m surprised you only have one,” Cindel says. She holds Rho’s arm and gently rotates it, looking for more symbols. “You must be one of the first.”

“Thank you,” Rho says, “for telling me my name.”

“Hey, don’t mention it. But how the hell do you not know your own name?”

“I’ve lost my memory bearings. All of the guards have.” Rho looks at Cindel’s face: her dark eyebrows, her upturned nose, her brown eyes, the faint remnant of an acne scar on her left cheek that looks like a tiny pink four-leaf clover waiting to bloom. “May I ask you another question, Cindel?”


“What do I look like?”

“Here,” Cindel says as she reaches out and grabs Rho’s hands. She guides them to Rho’s own face, letting her feel the contours, record the texture. Cindel releases Rho’s hands, and Rho stands up. She looks down at her tea-colored forearms and she tenses them, noting the hydraulic tendons that bulge beneath her synthskin, pushing the “P” tattoo upward.

“You look like a human,” Cindel says.

“Thank you. Again.”

Rho walks out of the cell, but before she closes the door behind her, she turns to Cindel and reminds her, “You will be able to join the workforce in two days.”

“You mean I’ll be able to escape in two days,” with a wink.

“I am beginning to understand your jokes, and I hope that was one of them, for your sake. You are joking, aren’t you?”

Cindel chuckles, and Rho interprets it as an affirmative response. The door slides shut, and Rho walks to the factory, her joints hissing susurrus complaints with each step.

Hours later, when the prisoners return, Cindel climbs into the empty cot where Delaney used to sleep, and listens to the prayers of some, the night terrors of others. Her body feels stronger, but Cindel feels this place’s claws sinking into her more deeply.

From her post in the hallway, before she powers down for the night, Rho listens to the human white noise as well. She wonders what the prisoners dream about when they sleep. And for a few microseconds, she wonders if she herself would be capable of dreaming if she still had her titanium memory bearings.

It is the last day Cindel will be left in cell 41. Tomorrow, she will join the war effort, building more Osprey-17 fighter jets and Katzbalger aircraft carriers than the world has ever seen.

She doesn’t mind the thought of working for sixteen hours, doing hard labor that would break even a farm animal’s spirit. But she finds no solace in the fact that she will do this until she dies, a coward and a slave.

When Rho steps into cell 41 and sets down Cindel’s meal, Cindel is standing with her eyes closed, bending down at the waist and touching the floor with her palms.

“What’s this one called?” Rho asks.

“Sun salutation.” There’s less blood soaking through her bandages today; only a few blotches have made it through the thick gauze.

“What does it do?”

Cindel opens her eyes, inhales deeply, and sits on the floor. “Nothing,” Cindel says, chuckling. “Supposed to give you good fortune... it’s a greeting to the sun.”

“But there is no sun.” Rho looks up at the ceiling where a single floodlight beams down like a blinding sentinel.

“Well don’t I look like an ass then?”

“Here,” Rho says. “I brought you something extra today.” She sets a folded gray fiberweave work uniform on the floor next to Cindel.

“Got sick of seeing me naked, huh?” Cindel reaches for the work shirt and starts to pull it over her head.

“Wait. I have to give you fresh bandages first.”

Cindel holds her arms up as Rho unwinds the gauze.

“Why are you always so nice to me?”

“Because,” Rho says as she inspects the healing whip lashes, “it’s my primary function.”

“To coddle me?”

“As I stated, every prisoner is expected to work while they’re interned here. If I must mend your wounds for that to happen, then I must mend your wounds.”

“If only every woman was like you.”

“What do you mean?” Rho asks.

“Oh, nothing.”

“No,” Rho says as she sits in front of Cindel. “You’re always saying things that I don’t understand... things that I perhaps take too literally.” She looks at her hands, turns them over to gaze upon the “P” tattoo, and turns them over again. “I want to understand.”

“It’s just my past,” Cindel says. “Nothing important, now that I’m here.”

“Please, tell me about your past.”

“What’s there to tell?”

“For instance,” Rho says, carefully. “How were you captured? Were you in bed with another woman when they found you?”

“I wish!” Cindel slaps her thigh and smiles. Then she bites her lower lip. Her face suddenly looks drawn, old. “No, they found my lover and me hiding in an abandoned solar farm on Lake Saint Clair.” She continues in a tone barely above a whisper, “We’d been running for a month, and we were too weak to fight back.” Rho considers urging Cindel to continue with her story, but she can see the same crescent moons of wetness under her eyes that were there on Cindel’s first night in the Oubliette. Rho stands up, her hydraulics straining.

“Why do you hiss like that when you move? Are your joints damaged?”

“No, my energy core is low. All of ours are. We’ve asked the Oubliette Warden if he can recharge them, but he said he’ll just bring new ones. He hasn’t yet.”

Cindel nods, understanding. “Rho?”

Rho stops before she slides the keycard through the reader. “Yes?”

“You know how I joke about escaping?”

“Yes. I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Well, what if I wasn’t joking? What if we both escaped, together?”

“Escape is not possible. And if you mention it again, I will have to recommend you for extrication.”

“Right, what do you have to gain from escaping? Once your energy core runs out, that’s it, huh?”

“The Oubliette warden—”

“And don’t tell me that the Oubliette warden’s going to bring you a new one. You know damn well he’s not. You’re too expensive to fix. How many of your fellow gynoids have disappeared since you started working here? And have you ever stopped to think about why they removed your memory bearings?”

“I haven’t dwelled on it. After all, my memories aren’t vital to my primary function.”

Cindel paces around Rho. With each step, she says, in rhythm, “That’s because your primary function is to be a prisoner.”

“I—” Rho stops. The logic of Cindel’s hypothesis is there, hanging in the air between them. Rho frowns, her processors struggling. “But I’m not... Gynoids aren’t assigned a sexuality at our inception.”

“That’s because they assumed you’d be hetero by default. But you’re not. You were soldiers, all of you. ‘Sexpot Sallies.’ I know what gynoids are used for on the battlefield... double duty. But when you wouldn’t spread your legs for your human platoon mates during those lonely nights, they locked you up in here with the rest of us.”

Though Rho longs for just one lost memory bearing, one tiny titanium sphere of data, one ball of feelings, emotions, and experiences that was ripped from her like a loose button on a shirt, she will not allow this longing to interfere with her primary function. Memories get in the way of progress. And clinging to the past is useless.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Rho says. “Pandering to an android is futile. Do not mention escape again. Tomorrow, you will work.”

Cindel steels herself against the fear of death that, until now, never had a face. “Tomorrow, I will attempt to escape,” she says.

“Very well. I shall summon the Oubliette warden to come tomorrow morning for your extrication.” Rho mimics a sigh. “I have grown fond of you, Cindel. Were I human, it would be... piteous? Yes, it would be piteous to see you go.”

“Who did you love?” Cindel asks hoarsely. “You’re no different than I am.”

Rho leaves, and in the hours until the prisoners return from the factory, Cindel meditates on her impending death. If escape truly is impossible, then she wants to die. She wants to be made an example. Perhaps others will follow.

“You’re not sitting like a flower or greeting the sun today,” Rho says as she enters Cindel’s cell the next morning. The workforce has already been herded to the factory with the promise of an extrication.

“Not a bad attempt at a joke. For a robot.” Cindel’s doing push-ups, inhaling and exhaling with each repetition.

“You don’t have to fight me,” Rho says. “The Oubliette warden will be here shortly, and your extrication is inevitable. Please, when I escort you, do not resist. I don’t wish to hurt you.”

Cindel laughs. “Pretty contradictory, don’t you think?” Cindel finishes her last push-up and wipes her brow. She stands. “I should spit you in your face, but I won’t.”

“It matters not.” At the threshold of the hallway, Cindel stares defiantly into Rho’s unblinking eyes. “Cindel, please, do not resist.”

But Cindel reaches for the rifle in Rho’s arms anyway.

In an instant, Rho twists Cindel’s arm, kicks the back of her leg, and pins her to the floor under her boot. “This is for your own good,” Rho says. And she discharges her rifle.

The pain is bright, like every one of Cindel’s cells is tossed into a burning sun. Cindel is barely conscious when Rho drags her body to the lift. Rho nods to the guard standing by the lift and steps inside.

The doors of the lift close. Cindel regains her senses, and she feels the titanium box quake to a start.

As the lift accelerates, the pain from the stun rifle fades, and Cindel contemplates another attempt at disarming the gynoid. Rho wouldn’t be expecting it. But as the lift accelerates more rapidly, Cindel feels her body being compressed.

“Where are we going?” she asks. “Isn’t the factory floor below us?”

“We’re not going to the factory floor. We’re waiting for the warden on the entrance level.”

“Am I not to be ‘made an example’ in front of all the other prisoners?”


“Let them see!” Fury from Cindel’s mouth. “Kill me there! Why not?”

“Because,” Rho says, “we’re escaping.”

The lift shivers to a halt.

“I... I don’t understand.”

“You were right, Cindel. I’m no different than you, even without my memories.” A smile breaks Cindel’s face. “Now get to the other side of the door,” Rho says as she presses her body flat against the lift’s wall, rifle at the ready.

“What now?”

“We wait for the warden.”

Electricity still pops in static bursts through the warden’s body as the lift’s doors slide shut and Cindel and Rho run through the ante-corridor.

The entrance level is empty and much less imposing than they imagined. It’s identical to the other hallways of the Oubliette except that, on the far end from the lift, there is a door to the outside.

“What’s out there?” Cindel pants as they run down the corridor. “What if the warden has guards waiting there? What if there are too many for you to handle?”

“We shall have to see.”

Rho slides the warden’s card through the vault-door’s reader. It chirps, and a light above the door flashes green. Rho places the warden’s severed finger on the fingerprint reader, and the second light above the door flashes green.

The door moans open, swinging on hinges the size of a human body. Wind from outside whips into the Oubliette, bringing snowflakes that settle on the titanium floor like motes of dust. It’s the surface world of Old Detroit, chilling them with a final warning. Her eyelids fluttering against the blinding winter, Cindel can make out the unmistakable shapes of helicopters outside. Five of them. And in each one, men with large guns.

“Shit,” Cindel mouths, ducking behind the wall. “Do you think they saw us?”

“Almost certainly,” Rho says.

“Can we go back and escape through the factory exit?”

“Impossible. The cliff bays are only opened when an aircraft carrier is finished. That won’t be for another month. This is the only way out.”

“What are we gonna do?”

“Hold on.”


Rho doesn’t give Cindel any time to comply; she grabs Cindel’s body in her arms and launches the two of them into a hydraulic-and-titanium powered sprint. A torrent of gunfire rushes past them. The men, the helicopters, buildings, streetlamps—become a blur of kaleidoscopic images for what Cindel can only imagine must be miles.

When they stop, Rho collapses, still cradling Cindel’s body. “I don’t know anything prior to my internment here,” Rho says. “Except that I was built for war.”

Cindel imagines Rho being built—one of first gynoids, possibly in one of the first Oubliette factories. She imagines her naked circuits and hydraulics—stronger than Odysseus—being sealed beneath synthskin plating more beautiful than Helen of Troy.

She helps Rho out of the snow and presses on. “Thanks to you, we should be able to outrun the soldiers.”

But already the sound of helicopters can be heard in the distance, and Cindel doesn’t realize that Rho’s energy core gauge is at 0%.

“The solar farm should be just ahead, beyond these buildings,” Cindel says between heaving pants. “I’m sure I saw some android power cores when I was hiding there.” She’s holding Rho’s upper arm as they run through the husk of Old Detroit, on the fringe of the Fallout Belt, on the skin of desolation. Like most industrial cities, Old Detroit is where generations were bred for war, where war consumed generations.

The helicopters haven’t spotted them yet, but Rho is beginning to lag behind. “You’re getting weaker,” Cindel says.

“Not weaker. Just... drained. I need to rest awhile. I’m going to shut down, but only for a minute.”

“No!” Cindel shouts. “Just a little farther!”

Rho shakes her head and heaves on, her joints huffing like a steam train. They run through the deserted city streets, sticking close to storefronts, under awnings, and weaving through alleys.

The thup-thup of helicopter blades echoes off skeleton skyscrapers overhead, and Cindel leads Rho through the broken window of an old bank. Outside, two of the helicopters blaze past, searching, hunting.

“We’ll wait here until the helicopters move out.” Cindel crouches behind a pile of rubble, but Rho lies on the bank’s broken marble floor.

“Rho, c’mon, we have to hide in case the soldiers come looking on foot.”

No response.


Her body is motionless.

“Oh God, not yet...” Cindel rushes to the gynoid. “Get up!” She slaps Rho’s face. “Get up! Get up, dammit!” But Rho’s eyes stare blankly up at her, like marbles, and Cindel’s screams trail off into sobs.

She’s alone now.

The helicopters eventually leave, but they’ll be back. And when the warden is discovered dead in the lift of the Oubliette, there will be more.

 [ Not getting up, © 2010 Rebecca Whitaker ] Cindel rises from the rubble. She has to get to the solar farm and find a power core for Rho, and after that there will be much work to do: the other gynoids, the other prisoners, the other Oubliettes.

And then?

She dashes out of the bank toward Lake Saint Clair, toward the farm, toward the useless black panels and the crumbling geodesic dome. But what if they spot me? She wonders. What if they find Rho and destroy her? Somewhere in the distance, a helicopter lands. Running with an ardor fueled by a lifetime of atrocity and war, Cindel throws her hair over her shoulders, and it fans out across her back in the way that it fanned out when Rho mistook it for a red silk scarf. Her whip lashes are scabbed over now. The infection is gone. She’s stronger. She carries the memories of Delaney and Rho and the other women of the New Detroit Oubliette. No. They can’t destroy me. As long as I have my memories, they can never destroy me.

© 2010 Nick Poniatowski

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