The sound of Celeste’s footsteps echoed through the vast emptiness of the cave, steady thuds mingling with the dripping of water and a distant roaring river. Shimmering azure patterns danced on the surface of the slate rock as the small girl plodded past a dark body of water. The cavern walls narrowed to an aperture spitting a faint beam of light which illuminated motes of skittering dust. Celeste fell to her knees and crawled through the opening, pausing for a moment to consider a wet patch of soil nearby. She stuck her fingers in and scooped up a ball of glistening mud, shoving the filth into a pocket of her tattered jeans. She turned back toward the orifice and sucked in a deep breath of air as her head emerged from the cave.
The sky was a canopy of crisscrossing steel beams and exposed wires looming over a vast field of rusted metal walkways and ladders, twisting down like artificial cliffs, the abyss below shrouded by a cyan haze. The light in this place was solely artificial, a few flickering man-stars tucked away in far corners of the ceiling. A rotten stench clung to the air. The steel toe of Celeste’s boot struck a handrail as the petite child wormed her way out from the naked earth below, prompting a metallic clang which reverberated deep into the facility.
She scuttled to her feet and carefully assumed a steady balance, the crooked walkway shifting and creaking as she moved along it, Celeste constantly reaching up to squeeze the handrail with her stubby fingers. As she paced around a bend with one side to the great fall and the mist, the girl stopped and stared downward. Smooth, rust-stained, massive walls like inverted skyscrapers dropped off into nothingness. As Celeste held the air in her chest and marveled at the vast expanse, a sudden crashing sound rang out. With a mighty groan, the steel walkway shuddered and snapped, hurtling the girl through the air and into the fog.
Wind whipped past with a deafening screech, the steel tower a blur of silver-copper beams and rails. As Celeste tumbled through the air and spun, she noticed something falling alongside her. A rough chunk of ancient steel whooshed past the girl and positioned itself underneath, then slowly began to ascend. The girl felt cold metal press against her side, and suddenly, the falling stopped.
The oxidized platform beneath Celeste was attached to a long metal arm protruding from the central tower. As she lie on her back panting and shaking, staring at the point where the tower faded into mist, another protrusion sprouted forth from the spire, this one smaller and more delicate. Attached to the end was an orb the size of a head with a massive, unblinking green eye and spindly metal arms with various tools attached which constantly pivoted and spun, creating a metallic whir.
“Altitude consternation evaluation complete. Please remain still while I extract necessary information,” the eye said with a soothing monotone male voice, only tinged with artificiality. Frigid arms reached out and pinned Celeste to the metal while a syringe revealed itself, pushing a fat needle into her bicep. She could feel an aching throb as the plunger drained the blood from her arm and into a glass vial. Celeste’s forearm was covered with scars from needles and blades, remnants of past extractions and suicide attempts.
“Evaluation? You knocked me off the fucking tower on purpose?” Celeste said through clenched teeth. She thrashed about, rattling the thin steel arms which bound her.
“Remain calm or else disciplinary measures will be enacted,” the eye’s voice chirped with the same friendly demeanor. Celeste struggled and grunted for
several more seconds, when a sudden jolt of searing pain reverberated throughout her body. The girl screamed and collapsed into a stillness. After a long
moment of silence, the machine began to retract its limbs and pull the needle from her skin. The platform creaked and began rising up, faster and faster
toward the tower’s apex. Her arms and legs now free, Celeste propped herself up and examined the robot with its array of surgeon’s tools and blinking
lights, those groping faux-hands dangling uselessly beneath it. The mechanical being had a name—
“I found the device you asked for,” Celeste hollered over the air whooshing past. Broker’s eye swiveled to the girl once more, and the thin metal arms reached out toward her, clicking with anticipation.
“Satisfactory performance. You continue to produce efficacious results and will be preserved for impending evaluations,” Broker said. As his saws and needles approached, Celeste scooted away slightly and crossed her arms.
“I’m not giving it to you yet. I have a request,” Celeste replied with an arrogant tone. One of Broker’s saws started spinning and screeching, startling the girl into uttering a nervous squeal.
“Do not make requests. Compliance is necessary or else disciplinary measures will be enacted,” Broker spouted his usual line. But after, the eye-creature cocked itself sideways as if curious, and asked, “Why do you struggle?”
The ascension ground to halt, Celeste and Broker still far from the tower’s peak, as the artificial hands skittered and nipped at the girl’s clothing with sharp fingers. The eye revolved around her, coming uncomfortably close, the digital pupil dilating and constricting. At last, Celeste spoke.
“I saw you kill those men, Broker. While I was scavenging for that piece of electronic shit, one night I slept in a turbine at the scrapyard. I heard voices. Those men, with the masks and the guns… You killed them,” she replied, still dangling on the precipice of a sheer drop. But Broker wouldn’t end her suffering. Time and time again, when Celeste attempted to kill herself, Broker would repair the wound or insert cybernetic organs to replace the damaged ones. “Why won’t you let me die?” Her voice cracked as she said it.
Broker’s eye faded from green to teal, slowly assuming a dark blue. The machine’s fingers paused and drew back, jittering brought to a halt by the scared girl’s words. They sat there for a long while as the artificial intelligence considered what had been said.
“Use of force is necessary when intruders are detected in any region of my body,” Broker declared, his eye shifting from blue to green once more. The body he referred to was the entire structure from steel sky to cyan abyss, stretching out for hundreds of miles. Broker was a massive labyrinthine lifeform capable of nearly anything.
“I’m the one who reactivated you,” said Celeste, her voice barely a whisper. It grew louder. “I command you to stop killing people.”
“Negative,” replied Broker, his eye shifting to scan upward. The platform groaned and began to rise again. “Intruders threaten scientific progress.”
Celeste began to laugh. She rose to her feet and tottered as she struggled to gain balance on the rising hunk of steel. Broker backed off slightly, then held steadfast, unafraid of the tiny girl. She kept walking forward with a determined stride, and Broker’s green eye became tinged with yellow as she approached.
She reached into her pants and removed a microchip, its purpose unknown to her. All of Broker’s tools grasped for the thing, but Celeste flashed a toothy grin and turned her body. She swiveled her torso and hurled the microchip off into the aquamarine. Broker’s platform stopped with a jolt, and before he could react Celeste, shoved a hand into a pants pocket sopping wet with sticky mud. She curled a fist around the muck and wailed as she flung it directly into Broker’s eye, covering the screen with a thick brown sludge.
She lunged at Broker, leaping off of the platform to dangle from his spider-like limbs. Celeste balled her hand around a syringe and pressed against the side of the needle until it snapped off in her palm, sending blood trickling down her wrist. She curled up her legs, pressed her feet against Broker’s muddy torso, and pushed off with all her strength. A buzz saw sliced her arm open as she fell, but she had broken free of Broker’s arms with a needle in hand.
As she soared down through the mist, Celeste closed her eyes and regulated her breathing. She pressed the needle into her neck, then grasped it with both hands like a handle. She began to wrench it sideways, tearing into her own jugular. Celeste shrieked and opened her eyes with the sudden shock of pain. In the distant folds of fog, she spied the glowing eye of Broker, traveling down with her, watching. His eye is blue. As she fell, Broker shrank, smaller and smaller, into the haze, until he eventually vanished. Celeste’s lips parted with a smile as she realized that—for the first time in so many years—she was finally alone.