A Gift for Spirit
Spirit hefted Galann off the metal table and onto a soft bed. His eyes remained closed, the pain and blood loss likely to keep them so until the next day. She put her hand to his forehead and tested to make sure he was the right temperature, that his vitals were still ok, and that the Colonel would be satisfied with his progress.
She glanced around the room. Two other people were there: the halfling Yonathen, who recently had his second limb replacement, and the dragonborn Klavdiya, who had just a week ago completed the third of four surgeries to attach artificial dragon wings to her vestigial nerves. It was a risky procedure – no one had yet succeeded in flying so much as ripping their backs apart, requiring steel spines that never worked as well as the natural bone ones organics were born with. The Machine would be impressed with Klavdiya’s sacrifice, though, and be satisfied with the opportunity to experiment.
“Are you feeling well, Klavdiya?” Spirit asked. She stepped over to the dragonborn’s bed, staring into her glaring, yellow eyes.
Klavdiya nodded and put down the pen that was resting in her mechanical right hand. “Yes, Spirit.” She pointed the end of her pen at unconscious Galann, then commented, “I see you and the Colonel have been busy today.”
“Unfortunately.” Spirit frowned as she looked to the peaceful Galann, but soon sighed and returned her attention to the grinning dragonborn. “If it is for the greater good, though, I suppose there’s nothing else to do than make these slobs stronger with machines.”
Klavdiya snorted, her grin widening even more to show her teeth and puff her scaly cheeks. “Well, you should be comforted in knowing that wimps like him don’t usually come back for more. It takes quite some effort to believe that the mechanical limbs are actually a part of you, and some people probably never get over it. Being a cyborg isn’t for everyone, I think.”
Spirit swallowed nervously. She moved her fingers, opening and closing a fist while she tried to keep her face blank. “I have no opportunity to experience cyborgism. I will not pretend to have any knowledge or expertise on the matter – though, our goddess does say it is righteous and good.”
“Oh, Spirit.” Klavdiya rolled her eyes exaggeratedly, huffing through her sharp teeth and the slits for nostrils at the end of her long snout. “I’m not talking about the ideal world, here. Of course machines and cyborgs are the ultimate end goal. I’m just saying that modern people aren’t all ready to accept and undergo advancement.”
“It is a misfortune.” Spirit walked to the window, looking down on the green leaves that grew just outside. It didn’t seem right to her, all that greenery and natural vegetation so close to a compound of the Machine’s. Worse, she could see it from inside the sweet, warm walls of the compound’s steel. “If only we’d won the war, Klavdiya, then we’d be closer to perfection.”
Klavdiya chuckled. “Why be so nostalgic? It’s not like the war was an especially good time for you, Spirit.”
Spirit’s attention turned, though, at the sounds of rustling sheets to her right. On the bed farthest from the entry door, the halfling Yonathen rolled over and grumbled. “Spirit! Spirit, fetch me a glass of water!”
Spirit held herself stiffly, then patted Klavdiya’s bedside reassuringly. “I’ll be back in a moment.” She walked around the end of Klavdiya’s bed and towards the water pail. She picked up a small tin cup sitting in a leather pouch on the side of a wooden bucket and dunked it in the bucket to fill it with a bit of water. The water retrieved, she picked up her head and delivered the cup to the last bed in the room. There sat the halfling, Yonathen, looking up at her angrily.
The halfling greedily took the cup and tipped it to his round face, spilling most of it and drinking a little. Once the cup was empty, he threw it across the room. “Where’s the water?” Yonathen asked.
Spirit remained still, keeping her face as emotionless as possible. Yonathen, like many others in the compound, was her superior. “Would you rather I retrieve the cup and fetch you more water, or would it be better if I remained here and allowed you to berate me? I can perform that function if you desire.”
Yonathen shook a little bit, then grimly frowned at her. “You getting smart with me? You think I’m going to treat you nice just ‘cause you’re the Colonel’s little trophy?”
Spirit felt the corners of her lips fall, her pumps work harder.
“That’s right,” Yonathen said, lifting his long nose into the air self-assuredly. “Now go get me my water – I’ve asked for it twice before, you know, and I don’t want to be forced to ask again.”
Spirit let her hands fall to her sides, sighing. “As you wish, Yonathen.” She stooped to pick up the cup and returned to the water bucket near Klavdiya’s bed.
Klavdiya scooted up in her bed a little bit, rustling the white, cotton sheets. “Don’t get him the water, Spirit. He’s ordering you to do this just to mess with you.” The dragonborn glared at Yonathan, the air around her nostrils rippling with the heat of her breath.
Spirit glanced only briefly at Klavdiya before returning her attention to the water bucket. “It is not my place to deny the orders of a superior. It is the way of things, and those ways hold our society together.”
“Like I said earlier,” Klavdiya spoke, sternly looking at Spirit, “It’s that way in theory, but in practice it’s a lot harder.” She glanced at Yonathen, then grabbed Spirit by the forearm as she tried to walk away. “Look, I’m at a higher rank than he is. If it’ll make it any easier, I can order you to disobey him.”
Spirit looked to Klavdiya’s blanket, then chose to breathe in to allow herself to sigh. “Don’t worry about it.” She pulled out a cup of water from the pail and returned to Yonathen’s bed.
With her hand extended to offer the cup, Spirit handed Yonathen that which he’d asked for. The halfling took it and sniffed his cup, sneering at her. “I don’t understand why the Colonel keeps you. I mean, what does it cost to feed, clothe, and house a thing like you? More than you’re worth, if you ask me. Can’t even fetch a cup of water for an invalid right!”
“I perform my duties adequately, sir.”
“You do enough to scrape by!” Yonathen laughed, his beady eyes squinting. “If I were the Colonel, I’d not care about keeping my ‘trophy’ in working condition. You’re as good a decoration dead as you are alive.”
Spirit tried to remain calm, but felt her shoulders tense. “Then I suppose we’ll wait on the Machine to send down her final decision.”
Yonathen smiled sneakily. “You go ahead and believe that, if you want. The Machine hasn’t been very responsive, recently. The Colonel knows this too, Spirit of Michael, and might turn a blind eye if someone does decide to do something to you. I mean, the Machine’s got no teeth, not really. It’s the Colonel who has the real power here.” He yanked his mechanical arm up quickly, grabbing Spirit’s hair, pulling her down closer to him. “You are a disgusting disease to the Machine, maybe a Sterlingish spy! Who’s going to miss you?”
“Yonathen!” Klavdiya shouted. Despite her painful back, she threw her legs over the side of the bed, the steel clanking and mechanisms in her limbs whirring as she did. “That’ll be enough!”
Yonathen scowled, but finally shoved Spirit’s head away. “No machine worth its steel should be as weak as you. I would crush you if I had control over your fate.” He spit at her, the saliva landing on her lapel. “Get out of my face, Spirit.”
Spirit stepped back, her processors running quickly, her liquid coolant pump working overtime. She felt her hands clench into fists, her arms becoming taut with hydraulic pressure as she felt – felt, the terrible word that she couldn’t get rid of – the desire to rip him into pieces.
She couldn’t beat him this way. She released her fists and asked, calmly, “Would you like me to get you more water?”
Yonathen grumbled and tossed his empty cup to her. “Not worth asking you.” He rolled over on his side, ignoring her for now. She took the cup away, dropping it into the leather container it was normally stored in, then paced up to Klavdiya’s cot. The nearby bed was a bit of solace, at the very least.
Once there, Spirit bent to her knees and placed her elbows on Klavdiya’s cot, shaking with the rage she would never be allowed to release.
Wide eyed, Klavdiya glanced back and forth between Spirit and Yonathen. “Spirit, you didn’t have to do that. You didn’t have to get him anything. He’s just… he’s just being mean, you know? Don’t put up with it.”
Spirit agreed, but couldn’t stop looking over her shoulder to make sure Yonathan was remaining on his cot. She sighed and mentioned quietly, “He’s right about one thing, though: I don’t have the ability to fight him. Him or any of the others who agree with him and have enhancements. If it weren’t for the Colonel’s protection, as tenuous as that is, I’d have been killed for sure.” Spirit tried to slink away, but Klavdiya held onto her hand gently, urging her to stay.
“Pfft.” Klavdiya rolled her eyes. “No one’s going to kill you – you’re almost entirely artificial!”
“An artificial being built by Michael.” She paused, confused why Klavdiya never reacted to the fact. “I wasn’t manufactured by our goddess, Klavdiya, and nothing will ever change that.” She yanked her hand away from Klavdiya, feeling of her palms where Klavdiya’s stronger fingers had gripped. Spirit whispered, hoping Yonathen wasn’t listening, “No matter what I say or do, my thoughts are permanently linked to this body. I cannot leave the confines of this… this prison, like you organics can.”
“The Machine will find a way-“
“It doesn’t matter if she can,” Spirit argued. “The Machine may be able to find a way to download me to her mainframe, but it’d be insanely dangerous.” She leaned forward to Klavdiya. “You remember, back during the war, what happened when the Soul of Michael was integrated with the machine men.”
Klavdiya shook her head. “But you’re willing! You’re not like him, you’re-“
“I’m a virus, Klavdiya, whether or not I want to integrate with the Machine. It’s how the five of us in the series were programmed, why we were put in bodies that couldn’t interface with any other terminal. I’m a destructive, all-consuming virus in a weak, useless chassis that the most misled thinking-machine in existence created.” She stood up. “Perhaps it is best I am killed… at least then there’d be no chance of me getting merged with and destroying the Holy Mainframe against my will.”
Klavdiya shook her head. “No, I disagree. The Machine will find a way to integrate you-“
“To find a way to defeat my programming, she has to learn it, which means she has to read it, which means the Holy Mainframe will necessarily be put at risk.” Spirit wiggled away from Klavdiya. “It’s not consequential, anyway. I’ve served the only Machine worth following for most of my life and only hope that I, in some small way, contribute to slowing the continually increasing disorder of the universe.”
“You shouldn’t be forced to choose between debasing yourself and survival, though.” Klavdiya rolled to her side, wincing as she did. “You should be celebrated as a hero, not despised as a potential traitor.”
Spirit shook her head. “I’ve never understood why you believed that story. There is no proof. Without proof, I might as well have done nothing.”
“Done nothing and allowed Michael to rise again?” Klavdiya waited, watching Spirit with hopes that she’d openly agree. “Spirit, you were the one that connected the plug that allowed the Machine to consume Michael’s mainframe and invade this plane of existence! You were the one that allowed her to begin overrunning Loadoa, to start taking a mortal world for herself! It had to have been the most holy call, Spirit, and you were the only one who had access, will, and ability to do it!”
Spirit curled her hands around the sheets on Klavdiya’s bed. Very few people could Spirit call allies, but Klavdiya was foremost among them. “Even if I am telling the truth, admitting aloud that you believe things like that could be dangerous.”
“How?” Klavdiya asked. “You did it. I know it was you. How can it help me to believe mere mortals when our goddess knows what you’ve done?”
Spirit clenched the blanket tightly. Did the Machine know?
“If the Machine in all her glory knows, Spirit, then it would be foolish to deny you. You would be one of her most favored followers.”
Spirit shook her head and looked briefly at Yonathen. The halfling was still facing the wall, not seeming to be interested. Quickly she turned her face back to Klavdiya. “But I’m not, Klavdiya. I’m the lowest of the low. I serve as acolyte under the Colonel because he wants to keep an eye on me, not because I’m important or holy. There’s no proof of what I told you and the Machine has the right to not acknowledge it.”
Klavdiya shook her head and grasped Spirit by the forearm. “I’m sure the Machine knows. I mean, wouldn’t she know?”
“I… the place where I sabotaged Michael didn’t have any sensors. Everything I did was just widen the security breaches in Michael’s programming and… and pray as I thought the Machine would want.”
“What?” Klavdiya laughed. “How did you pray to the Machine before the hubs were brought to Terrus?”
Spirit shrugged. “I… it was illogical. I was young, what can I say?”
Klavdiya let go of Spirit’s arm and patted her. “Must have worked, huh?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
A curious smile crept up along Klavdiya’s mouth, tightening the scales around her snout. Her dragon’s eyes beamed with gladness and she turned briefly to her side table, grabbing a book. “Would you like to find out? I mean, find out beyond doubt whether or not the Machine knows that you helped her out?” She opened the book to reveal a long envelope hidden inside, Klavdiya’s name written clearly on the off-white parchment. Klavdiya stuck a mechanical claw under the flap and pulled it up, revealing what was inside.
Spirit drew in breath and used it to gasp. She tenderly reached up a finger to the thick parchment encrusted with light pressings of emerald ink, almost afraid to touch it. Spirit leaned in close to Klavdiya and whispered, “A… a prayer card?”
Klavdiya nodded and closed the envelope over the card, making certain that Yonathen wasn’t paying attention. Carefully she pulled the card in its envelope out of the book, sneaking it just over the sheets into Spirit’s hands. “Here. Take it.”
“But you submitted to a dangerous surgery to get this! I can’t take it!” Spirit hissed. She tried to shove the card back, but Klavdiya stopped her.
Her strong, mechanical arms holding Spirit back, Klavdiya explained, “I’ve had six cards before this one, but you’ve never got even one, have you?”
Spirit couldn’t deny it. She fiddled with her fingers, wanting the card but knowing why she wasn’t supposed to have it.
“Take this one. Your questions will be more interesting than anything I could have asked anyway.” Klavdiya pressed Spirit’s hands together over the letter, the cold metal kind upon Spirit’s knuckles.
Spirit shook as she nodded and took the envelope. “Are you sure?”
“Yes! Of course I’m sure! Just… just don’t get caught, will you? Even if I did give it to you, I’m not sure that anyone would believe that you didn’t steal it, you know?”
Spirit knew. “I… Klavdiya, this is just too much! I just can’t!”
“Do I have to make this an order?” Klavdiya asked.
Spirit felt herself loosen as she pulled the envelope towards her jacket, pocketing it in the inside lining. “It’s just too great a gift.”
“With your work and loyalty, you should have had several by now. Perhaps talking to the Machine will finally straighten things out for you.”
Spirit took Klavdiya’s hand. “If there’s anything I can ever do for you, Klavdiya, anything-“
“You do plenty, Spirit.” Klavdiya shook Spirit’s hand. “Though, now that you’ve got me thinking, you sneaking me some of that chocolate cake from the mess hall tonight would be a pretty nice little bonus.”
Spirit and Klavdiya both chuckled. “It’s easily doable. I’ll see you tonight when the Colonel has no more duties for me,” Spirit promised with a smile. She stood and released Klavdiya’s hand. “That reminds me, I should probably be going. I left the organic residuals at the altar while I brought Galann here. I don’t need the Colonel being upset with me tonight, especially not if I want to get you that cake.”
Klavdiya let go and patted Spirit somewhat roughly on the side. “Then get out of here – take the bloody mess to the incinerator. Make your prayers while you do that.”
Spirit nodded. “I’d planned on it. Rest well, Klavdiya.”
“See you later.”
Spirit wrapped her arms around her torso as she left, ensuring that the prayer card was secure in her military style jacket. She felt the crunch of paper, heard the crinkling of the envelope, and released her hold on herself, walking stiffly as usual. If she were to get away with this, no one could catch her until after the card had been used.