I step from the light of the turbolift into the dark hallway. The hum of the New Bursa’s engines is louder here, thrumming through the walls with an almost deafening current. The orange glow from my chassis scarcely pierces the shroud of the narrow corridors. The decks down here haven’t been used in nearly two generations.
The Prophet only meets in abandoned places like this, far from the prying eyes of the crew and their endless purge of the heretics who deal in flesh and blood. It’s only when I reach out with internal sensors to confirm I’m alone that I send the coded query into the darkness around me.
The Prophet phases into existence in front of me. His modest chassis is unlit, save for modded eyes that burn like lavender fires in the darkness.
“Payment?” His voice is an electronic buzz, deep and resonant.
I send a query with a transfer request containing the necessary funds. The Prophet stares straight ahead, frozen, and I assume he’s looking over the transaction for malware or tracers. After a moment he nods.
“Take my arm.”
I wrap my metal fingers around The Prophet’s forearm. He taps a sequence on the device on his wrist. No matter how many times I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to see what he keys, no clue as to where he takes me. I feel a moment of disorientation and I realize we’ve already phased to somewhere else on the ship.
It’s a small lab with two tables, one is empty, the other has the specimen on it. Today it’s a male, a young man–maybe late thirties–with dark skin and eyes. He’s naked on the metal table. The monitor reads life signs, but his brain activity is minimal. He’s brain dead, by all accounts, vat-grown for the purpose of what I’m about to do.
The Prophet motions and I lift myself onto the other table, lying back. The Prophet attaches a variety of wires to my metal cranium. He then snakes the wires to the other table, where he attaches pads to particular parts of the specimen’s head.
I lose consciousness, for just a moment, and when I open my eyes I’m in control of the man on the table. Sensation floods my mind for the first time in what feels like an eternity. I feel the prickly cold of the metal on my back and butt and suck in lungfuls of the stale, sterile air. I trace the fingers along the veins and smile as I feel tingles of pleasure and goosebumps form on the flesh. I put my hands on the firm chest and–disconnect.
I’m back in my metal form, distant from the rush of feelings. I lay for several moments, staring at the dim ceiling. I would cry if I were able.
I sit up, swing my legs over the edge of the table and drop to the floor with a metallic thud. I wait while The Prophet peels the pads from the specimen’s skull and gathers the remaining wires. When he’s finished and walks towards me, I reach up to grasp his forearm. But he doesn’t offer it and studies me for a moment instead. Like he’s weighing asking me something.
“Would you like to see something else? Something more than this?” He gestures at the specimen with a metallic hand.
The Prophet rumbles a buzzing sound, almost like an angry hornet’s nest from vids of Earth. I realize this is a laugh.
“There’s so much more.”
He lifts his arm and I take it. He dials a new sequence.
We’re in an old hydroponic bay now. Rows of vegetation grow under ultraviolet lights. Fruits and vegetables I haven’t consumed in so many years cling to the healthy branches of trees and plants sprouting from the rows of fertilized dirt. These are fresh, kept plants, not what I expected from being abandoned by my shipmates so long ago.
At the other end of the bay, I see them. Specimens. Some of them are standing, others sitting, and they’re all talking to one another.
“Are they real?”
“Yes, they are very real. They’ve opted to give up metallic bodies.”
I stare at them, completely beside myself. Humans in flesh and blood. These are humans that could get sick, injured, even die.
“Are there children too?”
“Soon. We already have several pregnancies.” He sounds cheery, and it’s the first time I’ve ever heard him this way.
Real children? There hadn’t been a new generation for many, many decades, not since the crew had vowed to give up their bodies in an effort to curb population control, disease, and death. Something we all had vowed. I stare at The Prophet, at a loss for words.
“You are welcome to keep playing with the specimens in the labs, as many times as you need a fix, or you can join us and experience life the way it was meant to be lived. It’s much to think about, but I hope you’ll consider.”
The Prophet grabs my arm and keys a sequence.
We’re back in the dark corridors of the lower decks, where the hum of the ship’s engines is deafening.
“Do you wish to meet again?” The Prophet asks.
My mind reels. I can hardly believe what I saw. Humanity making a return to flesh and blood. What if the rest of the crew found out there’s a tumor of living, breathing humans on the ship? What if they found out I have knowledge and don’t say anything? It’s heresy. The results would be catastrophic. The only safe thing to do right now is to turn The Prophet in, to make the crew aware that the rumors of dealers dealing sensations of the flesh go deeper.
But I can’t.
I look at The Prophet and nod. “Yes, I want to meet again.”
This story previously appeared in Flame Tree September 2021 Newsletter.
Edited by Marie Ginga