by Christine Lee
Art by Caroline Wang
Issue: Scintilla (Spring 2019)
The prisoners waited in silence.
It wasn’t long until the railway track a few feet ahead began to ring and tremble. The crossing lights blinked red, the gate lowered, and the early morning freight train rushing to deliver supplies sped by. When only the dying hum remained in the air, the gate lifted, and they haggardly resumed their immortal march. The rail intersected with a lone trail blazed between their living quarters and the primary prison facility, forming some sort of crooked cross or “X” that was visible from above. A chain-link fence edged with barbed wire bordered their every path, extending far off into the distance.
Unit 006-36435 trained his optical sensors forward and nowhere else. His limbs moved mechanically, and his body automatically followed in the direction he was expected to go. He synchronized his every step to the pace of the unit before him. Falling behind wasn’t an option, and if the unit ahead somehow slowed or held back himself and the rest, then he’d be quick to overtake the obstruction. The line maneuvered itself as smoothly as a slithering centipede within the boundaries; the sinister steel from the fence glinted dully as the units walked on without a word.
An ashen and overbearing institutional building loomed over the straight row of docile ants. Donned in immaculate white were supervisors, officers assigned to oversee the prized livestock of site 36435. They stood at the head of the ordered array, shepherding them all through the solid tar-black gate, which let loose a weak wail—at once, the sound was cut off upon slamming shut behind them.
Inside, the crude concrete walls regarded their arrival with hostile indifference, and the fluorescent lights glared coldly. They proceeded down a bleak corridor lined with doors, all numbered with white paint, yellowed like beeswax and peeling away. More than familiar with the everyday procedure, the units separated into their designated rooms and stations, all predetermined by their unit number. Within seconds, they were at work: studying their respective screens, downloading information, overloading their built-in storage, processing data, rapidly re-accessing their memory, exporting calculated computations, repeating the cycle. Occasionally, red text bled into view on their displays, and all the while their watches dug into their wrists like handcuffs as time marched on.
Sitting at the back was unit 000-36435, silently struggling as her eyes nervously swept across the screen and hands visibly shook. Just ahead of her was unit 008-36435, who wore his usual thoughtful expression, though a frown of frustration tugged at his lips. At the front, unit 006-36435, calm and expressionless, eliminated error after error.
When it was time for mid-day meal, the three of them sat together at the table in the back corner of the dimly-lit dining hall.
“…and once you light the fuse,” 008 was chattering on eagerly as he often did about anything, “it’ll fly up into the air, and the sky will explode with color. Well? Zero, what do you think?”
“That does sound awfully pretty,” she admitted wistfully. “Do you, do you think we will ever have a chance to see that? The three of us, together like this.”
“Maybe. If only this blockhead,” he said as he gave 006 a hard, but friendly nudge while laughing openly and without restraint, “would try giving it a shot.”
He responded sharply with a cold, irritated look. “It’s not up to me. It’s up to them. If you drag me into another one of your messes, they could seriously catch us. They’re the ones who get to decide what leaves and what stays and what terminates in the end.”
“Not again, Six—”
“Efficiency and consistency, accuracy and immediacy. Don’t you remember that’s all they expect from us? If we properly stick to protocol, and push ourselves to win their approval, our worth will be acknowledged, and we will be rewarded with a way out. That’s the right way out—the only one.”
Sensing 000 flinch beside him, 008 bristled for a moment, but his expression soon turned pensive, and he mused aloud to himself, “There’s got to be another way, some loophole or back door…”
006 averted his steel-blue eyes. “It’s been over sixteen years. You won’t find one.”
“N-nevermind all this!” interjected 000. “Let’s eat to keep our strength up.” She attempted at a lighthearted tone to defuse the growing tension, but it sounded too strained.
Still, they returned to their unappetizing meal, forcing down the prison feed, accepting the nourishment to keep functioning, yet all three knew none of them could taste anything.
They were let outside into the closed-off courtyard wedged behind the facility for a time interval known as “downtime,” which took place up to twice a day, the first after mid-day meal, and the second in the evening, upon quota completion. But outside only meant standing, stiffly, silently. The grass, withered and dead, from lack of rain. Within a pen, enclosed, by more unforgiving fencing. Often, the three would gaze up at the dull sky, almost always obscured by a thick, smothering curtain of clouds.
Once, about a month ago, 000 had spotted a small sparrow that had foolishly flown in and tangled itself in the ugly web of barbed wire. Her soft brown eyes had overflowed with tears, and without faltering she’d reached in with weak, gentle hands and drew the bird out free. An expression of curious wonderment had crossed over 008’s features, and he’d gingerly began examining the damaged wings. Contrarily, 006, at their urging, had held it once and kept his distance ever since, wearing a look of horror and disgust. There was something about the creature that he’d found unbearably repulsive; it had resonated something in him, something he’d detested and feared.
Her hands were scratched raw and bleeding from cuts that were later deemed a hindrance to performance and then treated by the on-site nurse. During the visit to the nurse’s office, 008 had snuck bandages and a tiny jar of medicinal ointment with the intent of saving the sparrow. Within the short span of two weeks, 000 had nurtured the bird until it had fully regained the ability to fly. Breathlessly, they’d watched it lift itself into the air and soar away until it was forever out of sight, leaving behind an empty, aching sensation in their chests. They’d wordlessly returned to their monotonous routine.
Yet the memory, data that proved useless in succeeding in their torturously endless toil, remained untarnished; even now, after their tasteless meal, the three recalled it once again. Soon, however, they mechanically retreated into room 321 under the direction of Supervisor C. As their overseeing officer, he fortunately was fairly lenient and languid, and looked upon unit 006 and 008 with approval: 006 retained high marks by staying and working tirelessly late alone into the night, occasionally even until early morning, whereas 008, the consistently top scorer, often finished his quota relatively quickly and assisted his supervisor in an assortment of tasks. Thus, he was permitted to enter areas such as the kitchen, the reception desk by the warden’s office, or even the rooftop to run errands.
Within roughly four hours, he concluded his performance testing hours ahead of the rest and volunteered to take up the task of bringing crates brimming with broken hardware on a rolling cart to the disposal room. Upon locating the room, he unlocked the door with the key from his supervisor, pushed the heavy door open, and peering attentively into the darkness, found and flipped on the light switch. Pale, ghastly white draped over the room, revealing black bins of scrap metal. The room was as frigid as a grave. Frowning, 008 scanned the room thoughtfully before unloading the crates beside the bins to be processed later. He casted a careful glance inside one of the bins, pondered for a moment, and withdrew a small, flat piece of what he suspected was some sort of magnesium alloy. “These will probably be deserted straight at a junkyard. I suppose when we go obsolete, will we also…” His murmur trailed off, but his mind continued to turn the thought over and over long after he left the room behind. They were three months away from the end of their seventeenth year.
Two months later, the workload grew insufferable. 006 mindlessly labored longer and later more and more often in the morning; he couldn’t remember when was the last time he’d slept or eaten decently. Even 008 reluctantly halted in assisting their supervisor for the time being and became increasingly irritated. But it was 000 who fared the worst by far in room 321. She couldn’t keep up at all. The line of assessments kept incessantly incrementing, with no sign of ever ending.
Performance testing. The procedure set in place to evaluate and measure the efficiency and quality grade of each product, each unit. Load testing. Stress testing. Breakpoint testing. At the end of each year, there would be a palpable surge in such mind-numbing evaluations, and a defective database, judged as inadequate, from each room exposed, isolated, and permanently removed for shutdown—terminated. Only the worthy would win a place in the outside world. To compensate the loss, regulations demanded for new units to be ordered, promptly shipped, and to arrive by train.
Each passing day brought another chilling wave of fear that engulfed and drowned every unit. 000, in particular, woke on the stiff mattress of her cell pale with paranoia and shivering uncontrollably, remembering how she’d scarcely escaped the culling from previous years. However, her natural integrity and tenderness refused this time to allow 008, who surreptitiously and unfailingly offered to ease her workload, to bear her burden. Blinded by desperation, seeing 006 work himself to death awed her, and she frantically attempted to follow suit, toiling away long after midnight.
And still the stream of suffering gave no indication of ever stopping. When dawn once again prodded the units awake, they lined up outside their living quarters; the standard order was assigned by unit number, with the greatest near the head and the least taking the tail. The air was thick with haze and the sun appeared faint and smudged. The supervisors stood by the railway track. They noted with disapproval that the morning train seemed to have been delayed, which happened from time to time, and proceeded to lead the units through. The units formed an unbroken chain as they passed over the track. At the end was 000.
Her senses were deadened with exhaustion. Her hearing seemed deafened; the smallest noise sounded indistinct, yet rang at a pitch unbearably shrill and sharp. Her eyes were still bleary with remnants of sleep. A clanging cacophony began to fill her ears. Disoriented, she paused, wildly and frantically looking about like a lost child. Her muddled mind made out a light, blinking, surveilling, from the murkiness: she clumsily hastened toward it, as if it were a flare signalling salvation amid choking smoke.
The gate lowered.
A prickling unease overcame 008, and for some inexplicable reason, he decided to steal a glimpse over his shoulder—cold dread immediately rose up inside him and he came to a dead stop as he watched the freight train hurtle forward and collide into a feeble figure, flinging it against the fence lining the sidewalk that ran parallel to the track.
He abandoned all thought, already tearing himself out of the line, but before he could go any further, a hand forced him to a halt. It was 006. He’d witnessed it too. “Don’t go. Not that way, Eight.”
“Please, just let go.”
“You know I can’t even if I—” He caught himself in time to sharply cut himself off. “Remember the regulations. There isn’t any other way—”
“Then let me go!” Unable to contain his hysteria any longer, he broke free, bolting recklessly to the mangled body, holding what was left of 000-36435. Her hair glimmered in the weak sunlight like honey harvested from a bee comb. Her hands no longer shook. Her eyes were closed.
She was finally at eternal rest.
Since then, 006 could only watch 008 fall into an excruciating state of insomnia and numbness, deeper and deeper into a hollow pit where even light couldn’t leave. Nothing in his database afforded an answer, so with hesitant uncertainty, he let him be. He himself was helplessly tormented by barrage after barrage of nightmares; her final moments haunted him, crushed him with oppressive guilt. In spite of it all, during the day, he maintained his controlled disposition, somehow managing to complete all his tests in an orderly fashion, almost thankful to avoid sleeping by drowning himself in his assessments, ridding himself of any more thoughts beyond the flat, one-dimensional realm of his screen. His standing, his position in the placings, still sufficiently superior and stagnant.
But 008 was a brittle shell of his former self. For the remaining month, he lethargically came to room 321 under the irrational delusion that she’d be there. Despair devoured him each time, and for the following two months, he sat at his station entirely motionless and devoid of life, simply staring emptily at the screen. Then for the next four months, he conducted his performance evaluations frantically, furiously, faster than ever before, as if he solely yearned to suffocate himself in the meaninglessness of it all. Supervisor C saw his suffering and took pity on him. 008 retained permission to roam the facility after finishing early, but he wandered the halls restlessly and in a bewildered stupor, as if he were in the midst of carrying out an unknown, impossible, never-ending task. Frequently, he found himself standing by the outer edge of the rooftop, though he never understood why or how he’d come. Unable to sleep at night, he paced back and forth within the constraints of his cell, occasionally brushing his auburn bangs out of his eyes in vexation, but his attempts to put his thoughts back in order were futile. Exasperated, grief-stricken, and incredibly weary, he eventually collapsed in a heap.
He jolted awake on the cold, rigid floor the following day and surveyed his surroundings, as if seeing them for the first time. His unfocused gaze landed on an unfamiliar, metallic object. His watch threatened him with his unpunctuality, but he ignored it. He picked up the item and examined it thoroughly, holding it up to the dim, lone light bulb—which casted more shadows than it did light—before gradually recognizing it. Driven by a rush of resentment and pain, he abruptly hurled it away. It hit the wall and fell lifelessly to the ground where his eyes fixed a sullen stare at it.
It was the bit of magnesium he’d taken from the disposal room. It had been left unfinished and forgotten since the final month of the previous year; he’d been in the middle of whittling and engraving it with a folding pocket knife swiped from the kitchen into a rough, uneven outline resembling a bird feather. He’d meant it as a token of encouragement—a keepsake she could carry. He fell backwards on his shabby cot. Oblivious, or rather indifferent to the relentless tugging of time, he sank into a restless sleep, slipping in and out of unconsciousness. He lost track of how much time passed, yet the day that bird had left them behind and that day he’d obtained that forsaken metal scrap came back to him.
Suddenly, his eyes opened, igniting anew, and he gave a start. He moved to retrieve what he’d cast aside, and spent a prolonged moment deliberating, weaving together an idea. His mouth slowly lifted in a helpless, sorry smile and he set about searching for the pocket knife. Upon finding it tucked away beneath his cot, he flipped the blade out, gripped the handle firmly, and resolved to begin by chipping away at his treasure until nothing but twinkling bits of silver stardust remained.
Cotton gauze, fine as gossamer. White powders. Red match heads. Celestial cinders. It had taken 008 three weeks to collect everything, and about seven weeks of trial and error in secret until every attempt fertilized the finale to flourish and blossom. Now all he had to do was wait.
The day exactly a year from 000’s erasure came with the escalating onslaught of assessments. It was late in the evening when 006, finally satisfied with his scores, wearily looked up from his station. Though he was dead tired, his mind managed to register 008, lying on the surface of his station, eyes closed, his breathing soft and rhythmic. 006 glanced at his watch, wincing at the time before standing and walking over to gently rouse him awake. He was puzzled as to why 008 had stayed to wait for him, and even more so when he was keen on heading up to the rooftop. Apprehensive, but too tired to protest, 006 gave in. They left room 321 behind, heading down the long, dismal hallway, keeping their distance from the disposal room, going by the wayside closest to the courtyard, working their way past the warden’s office, and up flight after flight of stairs before pushing the door to the top open.
The brisk, outside air revived his senses; a passing breeze brushed lightly against his cheek. The rooftop overlooked the courtyard, where a solitary lamppost casted its cold, eerie glow, quietly monitoring their presence. Catching sight of a flare of unwavering intensity in 008’s eyes, he waited, patiently. Despite the dark, 008 located a flue pipe by the edge, pulled off the rain cap, and balanced something slim and white in it. He turned, held out a box to him, and smiled regretfully when 006 stepped back. Then without any hesitation, he slid it open, withdrew a single match, struck it against the box, and lit the fuse.
No words were needed. 008 discerned his restraint, the weight that overwhelmed him, and 006 in turn recognized his resolve, his unceasing search for something, something more. And as this mute, mutual understanding passed between them, the chrysalis rose up into the sky, leaving a frail trail of glimmering butterflies: dancing hues of reds and yellows, like the lasting remains of dusk with the sun no more; and oranges and pinks from the stirring sky of a distant dawn, free from the smolder of festering, forgotten dreams. Their faces tilted toward the sky, entranced, breathless: 008’s irises, olive-green and flecked with amber; and 006’s eyes, cerulean like an unclouded spring day. The light—achingly dwindling, falling, plummeting into nothingness.
But before they released their long-held breath, the slumbering remnants burned white-hot, ethereal ash bursting forth into a shower of sparks, resuscitated as stars, awakened and evanescent in a nebula blanketing the empty abyss that was the sky.
Visibly trembling at the end of it all, 006’s wide eyes turned away from the now lightless void. “W-what was…” His voice, overflowing with emotion, raw and uncontained, failed him.
“That,” spoke up 008 softly, “was our testament, and a farewell of sorts.” He gazed down at the dark, deformed silhouette of fencing below them. “I needed to see, to prove to myself that I could make it. That we’re here, still here, even after.” His eyes met 006’s and lit up further than ever before, for the first and final time. “I’ll show you!” he insisted. “It must’ve ended up somewhere in the yard. Wait here—I’ll get it back for us,” he added, noting his friend’s weak exhaustion.
006 nodded, watching him leave before him. Suddenly, a thought struck him like a whip. “Eight! Remember—don’t be seen with…” His cry died on his tongue. 008 had already gone on ahead of him. He crept cautiously to the edge of the rooftop, as far as he dared to go, peering anxiously into the courtyard. His chest slowly lightened in relief upon seeing 008 safely appear and salvage his rocket, still intact and pale as the milky petals of lycoris spider lilies. Then his heart froze.
Standing in the icy pool of lonely white, the boy turned once a shadow stepped into the light.
Afraid to witness any more, 006 stumbled unsteadily backwards, yet was still unable to bring himself to shut out the harsh sounds of the shadow’s looming orders: number now, hand over, too late. Below, the boy began, but the wind picked up, drowning out his words, until finally dissolving down into a nearly dead silence. Then the warden’s voice, razor-sharp, dealt the final blow. Willful disobedience. Insubordination. Defiance of authority. Breach of prison protocol. Explosive. Unit 008-36435. Sentenced to termination.
So long—that was it. That was all 006 could risk himself to remember from eight in the morning, forced to face execution the following day. That, and the green iridescence of a fly, suppressed by a silencer; the light in his eyes extinguished—blown out with a bullet. White stained with red.
Divided. Conquered. The prison drove him mad. And the outside world was no different.
After twenty-one long, short-lived years, he was granted leave at last. But the kaleidoscope of colors he’d imagined waiting behind that warped wire wasn’t there. It never had been. Still fighting down fatigue and recurring dreams, but scared to death of being eliminated from the place he’d won, he surrendered himself to the same system yet again.
Still he couldn’t sleep. Still time ticked on. Still it wasn’t enough.
Still—still standing still
Before he was even aware of it, his own body was wracked with violent, coughing spasms. Tasting metal in his mouth, he’d draw his hand away from his face and stare hollowly at the red, red, red marks that sullied his palm. Something that had a limit, that stopped working, broke—had no place saved for it in this world. Tossed out. Kill switch hit. Thrown away. Left for dead.
He pressed on still. Pushing on like a dung beetle condemned to continue for all eternity. Because if he didn’t work, if he couldn’t work, he’d end the same way: crushed and discarded.
Or so he thought. He was cut from his role nine years after his release from the factory where he’d been manufactured—replaced and disposed of. Sent to the scrap heap anyway. His performance marked as meager. Efforts deemed as dead weight. After all, why refurbish the obsolete when another—newer, smarter, faster, and better-built—can easily, so very easily take his place?
Now, lying on the bed of a different cell, only somewhat less smothering, his body crippled from blight, overuse, and abuse, he only waited and laughed bitterly, brokenly at himself. “Didn’t deserve, any of it. What—” he heaved out between ragged coughs, his face contorted with effort and pain, “what a waste.”
He rested his sight on the small sun above. The soft incandescence started flickering, pulsating like a heartbeat. The pulse of something so warm and wounded and surely, undeniably alive, quivering in his bare hands. The pounding in his chest as he’d gazed up at a star, exploding and outshining all at the end of its lifespan. His loss, his crushing anguish—everything he’d long detached and deprived himself of came flooding back. His field of vision blurred and dimmed. Warmer, brighter, banished bulbs with more work overtime truly burned out soonest.
The light ebbed away, little by little, and died with a shuddering sigh. Spent.
A swallow with a white underbelly, an azure sheen on both head and back, and ash-brown wings followed the train tracks. At a crossroad, disconcerted and distraught, he lost his bearings and circled above. Over and over again, unwilling, and even more, unable, to bring himself out of the cycle that strangled like a noose.
At that moment, a wisp of a soothing song, haunting and incredibly gentle, reached out to him, guiding his way around an intimidating structure as he avoided the line of lethal wire by instinct. The swallow dipped down to land on the barren carpet of a courtyard. The call came from a mourning dove, perched precariously on top of the fence, painstakingly keeping her feathers free from harm. She cooed in peaceful greeting, and the two lifted into the air toward the roof. There, a berylline hummingbird flitted to and fro as he restlessly scoured his desolate surroundings for flowers. The swallow and the dove alighted on the edge of the rooftop, and the hummingbird paused in place, hovering in thoughtful earnestness before darting forward without fail to join them.
Then the three, reunited at long last, took off into the sky.
The clutches of their aviary and the chains of the railway fell away behind them. Snow began drifting to the ground below them in flurries of powdered sugar. The swallow found and settled into his place beside the dove and the hummingbird. Here, his place was right here, and had been waiting all along, all this time faithfully his, freely meant for him and for always.
They flew alongside one another, heading for a land just beyond the horizon that promised the featherlight kiss of forgiveness and the embracing comfort of a lullaby, where even the unworthy were warmly welcomed: a place to call their own.