We’ve got robotic arms to put the eyeballs in. Metal clamps to pull down the eyelids. Tony, on Four, keeps the grease vats filled. Oil squirts nineteen times a minute to keep the eye sockets from squeaking. Tiny slick needles stitch on the lashes, while millions of different irises get stamped in magenta and yellow and cyan, so no two will ever be alike, just like us.
All that, and they can’t engineer anything—or anyone—to take over my job. People in Organs go home coated with grease and vinegar; people in Bones have lost fingers to the machines, and still nobody wants the job where a hundred half-live cyborgs line up in rows, twitching when your back is turned. Waiting for someone to talk to them, feel for them. Transcend them to life.
There are safety signs around the factory. “Scrub Up.” “Know Thyself.” “Don’t Blink.” That last is the best piece of advice, here on the eyeball floor.
Sometimes you blink and the world changes.
Sometimes you just go blind.
Clementine was a crèche type, made to comfort human babies. Hold them in maternity wards, or when the human parents are working. A parallel to my job, a cyborg coaxing humans into awareness. Usually crèche types transcend the fastest; they’re stuffed with warmth signals and motherly hormones. They respond to my need for them to transcend and they oblige.
But she wouldn’t.
One evening, after I’d escorted all the newly-transcended cyborgs down to Shipping, I came back to my room on the eyeball floor.
The room always feels chilly after the most lively ones have left. The remaining cyborgs fall in that uncanny gap; neither dead nor alive. Little parts of them were waking up—there, one side of his mouth crinkled with a human smile. That girl swallowed, and that man scratched himself when my back was turned. I felt it.
That’s why nobody wants my job. This asteroid miner, down on the end—his neck and mouth were alive with intent, but nothing else was. The heartbeat pulsed in his neck, speeding up as I inspected him. I stared at his jaw and he chewed on his lower lip. I bet myself a packet of tea he’d be a resentful imprint, hating me, his “parent.”
But though his mouth was awake, his eyes were dead.
I went over to the young woman. Clementine, I’d named her. Her real name was Agrippina Adamantina Crèche—it was inscribed on the back of her neck. Julie on One comes up with all the names and tattoos them on, just below the serial number. She ran out of good names like Clementine ages ago. Clementine is a good name for a crèche cyborg, because they all have wide sturdy feet.
I walked Clementine to a corner and I talked to her alone. I talked about rabbits, about the price of tea in China. About Sue, my girl in Feet who had curly brown hair that tumbled across her nose, who liked powdered milk in her tea. I watched the printed blue irises, the vat-grown ears. The swing of silky blonde hair. None of it registered.
“I hate failures,” I told her. “Not you. I hate when I fail. So you’d better hurry up and transcend. I don’t want your brain to be stripped and started over. If you’ve got anything going on upstairs it’ll wink out of existence.”
Behind me, that miner cyborg stepped all the way out of line.
“You don’t want that either, huh?” I said. “What’s your name?”
He looked down at me. Hatred. “Don’t know.”
I walked around him and looked at the back of his neck. “Maurizio Jung-Na Jung Miner. A mouthful. Call yourself Maury.”
“If I want.”
“Recalcitrant cyborg. Look, I just made the Shipping run. See that crèche model with the curls? Why don’t you see if you can talk her into existence before morning?” The girl’s painted blue eyes stared through us. “She’s hiding in there.”
But when morning came, Maury was carving a swear word into my desk, and Clementine was as still as the grave.
If there was life there, I was blind to it.
I should’ve given Clementine up to Recycling, but I didn’t. She became my pet project, and on my breaks I walked her around the factory. I showed her where her hands had been attached and how her blonde hair had been woven to her scalp.
I took her to see Sue, and we stood and watched her hair tumble as she cleaned a pile of feet.
“Darlin’ Clementine, this is Slue-Foot Sue,” I said.
Sue laughed. “You’re so funny. Where do you get those crazy names.” She flicked a bit of skin away with the sander.
“Slue-Foot Sue was Pecos Bill’s girl,” I said. “She wore a bustle and it bounced her over the moon.”
She laughed again. “I never did see the likes of you,” she said. “Must be why you can work with the cyborgs when they get all creepy.”
“Just a knack, I guess,” I said. “Well, Clementine and I are gonna go down to Four now and see the grease. Maybe I’ll see you later, make you a tea with a spoonful of milk, just how you like it.”
Slue-Foot looked down at the foot she held, her curls obscuring her face. “Tell Tony I says hello,” she said.
I turned Clementine to the stairs and her arm shuddered beneath me, something warm and human. Her face was dead, but you don’t work on the eyeball floor long without learning to trust intuition.
“That’s a darlin’,” I said. “That’s what I want to see.”
We emerged on Four, where Tony was tinkering with a fitting. “Tony keeps the wheels greased,” I said. “He tops off the grease vats and he makes sure the gears on Four run smoothly.”
“Heya,” said Tony. “Whatcha doing with the cyborg?”
“She won’t transcend,” I said. “It’s been three weeks.”
“Oh yeah? Her neck joints all right?” He wiped his hands on his pants and moved aside her silky blonde hair to rotate her neck. “Sometimes the wires and organics get pinched.”
“Tony used to work in Necks,” I told her. “Can you tell Tony that Slue-Foot Sue said ‘hi?’ She was a nice girl, wasn’t she?”
“Don’t talk to them in front of me,” Tony said. “Creeps me out.”
“You’re touching her and she’s not creepy.”
“It’s not a ‘her’ yet,” said Tony. “Lifeless as a wrench.” He let her hair fall back. “By the way, Randy’s going to be gone Monday. Someone has to fill in on Seven.”
I groaned. “Contest?”
“Unless you want to cede now.”
“Not a chance. C’mon, Clementine.” I nodded at Tony. “Tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah.” He stared at Clementine’s lifeless face. “You really took her to see Sue?”
“Sure thing,” I said. “After all, she’s my girl.”
At ten on Friday I met Tony for the contest. When you’ve been here as long as us, you know all the jobs by heart, even the ones you’d rather fight over than do. Lots of people want to fill in for management, but they make me or Tony do it because we won’t get any ideas. We don’t want ideas. Tony likes Grease and I’m needed where I am.
There were lots of people in the exercise room to watch. Everyone on break, standing with their thermoses of coffee or squeezes of soup. Sue stirred powdered milk into her tea, brown eyes lively with excitement.
Tony and I contest by birling—there’s a long metal cylinder in the middle of the exercise room, rigged up three feet off the ground on a spindle. We each stand at an end and walk or run, forwards or backwards, trying to drop the other one off as the cylinder spins. It mimics the old days when the factory was a real wild place; corrupt management and no safety regs. Guys used to balance on the rolling metal chute over the powered-down Recycler late at night, betting on who would face-plant in the vat.
“Two out of three?” said Tony.
“One out of one,” I said. We kept our balance with long pointed poles, steadied our feet on the roughened metal. “Three . . . two . . . go,” said our ref, and we dropped the poles, walking forward on the metal cylinder.
Good birling’s about clever balance and sharp focus. Watch your opponent’s feet and don’t blink. We weren’t even in skill but we fought anyway, ’cause I couldn’t let Tony win without a fight. Some people bet on me, ’cause they liked the odds.
Tony’s feet trotted forward. Mine kept pace. I slowed us. He sped us up.
Sue watched us, holding her tea. A curl tumbled into her face. I missed the change in tempo as Tony reversed, spinning the cylinder backwards, feet pattering and whirling the metal.
I took a header into the mat and it was over like that. Everyone groaned.
Tony jumped down and beamed at Sue, and she ran to him. “You were a god, Tony.” To me, with pity: “Nice try.” Tony squeezed her closer.
Only then did I realize that this time the contest wasn’t really about management. It was about Slue-Foot Sue, and worse, I saw then that her heart belonged to Tony. I’d worked in Hearts before I was promoted to the eyeball floor, so I thought I knew a lot about them, but obviously I didn’t. Sue didn’t care that I was the only one to watch how her curls tumbled. The one that knew and adored every gesture she made. I levered to my knees with the aid of the pointed pole.
She wasn’t my girl at all.
I lunged at Tony. He sidestepped and the sharpened pole kept going, swept on hard, took a long red gash out of the person coming up to give me the rundown on the Monday replacement shift.
Randy. It was Randy and he jumped backwards, clutching his arm, bawling. “Goddamn, Bill! You’re out on your ass for that. You know the goddamn rules. Tony, you cover Bill’s shifts.”
My blood pumped high at the sudden collapse of everything. “Don’t blink,” I said to Tony.
“Someone might take your girl.”
When I went back to my room on the eyeball floor, my hands were shaking.
Clementine stood apart from the others, by the window, sun glinting in her curly brown hair. I hadn’t realized that she had hair like Sue and it made me slant away, crossing my arms.
I told her about the contest. There was something about the way that Tony looked at me before we started. I should’ve known then, I said. I should’ve known Slue-Foot had changed her mind, that she was Tony’s girl now. Sure, we’d shared a laugh or two in the elevator, but so what? Tony had a good job in Grease and I was here. Sue didn’t care that I knew every micro movement of hers; the way she ate, laughed, swung her hair.
Clementine moved as I spoke, but movement didn’t mean life. Even machines grow restless. She sat at the window, face lifted to the sun.
“And now this is it,” I said. “I’m done. Kaput. I have to pack my bags. And you know the worst part?” The sunlight picked a stripe of white across her snub nose and cheekbone. “Sue doesn’t even care.”
Clementine, the failure I would leave behind, rankled. I grabbed her chin and turned it towards me. The brown printed irises were stony—cold with anger? I turned her cheek again. No, just cold. She would be scrapped.
I looked again. Her eyes were brown, the same color of Slue-Foot Sue’s, those eyes I knew like my own.
“I’m going crazy,” I said. A dark statement as I backed away. Maybe if I turned now, the whole room of cyborgs would look like Sue to me. Or just the girls, rows of brown curls—the boys all looking like Tony, hulking and red-cheeked.
Don’t blink on the eyeball floor, they say. That’s the reason no one wants my job. No one wants to work the transcending. ‘Cause they say, out there in the factory, that every time someone blinks, they lose a little bit of themselves and a cyborg gains a bit.
I turned. But the room was the same—a roomful of the halfway-transcendent, rows of uncanny cyborgs that no one else could handle.
“Don’t blink,” the sign said. I tore it down.
I cleared out all the cyborgs that were close, accelerated them, and marched them down to Shipping. I stayed into the late shift, while everyone left except the mechanics who fidget with gaskets in the moonlight. The room got colder and colder. No one said anything to me; no one made me go home.
This one with the Slue-Foot hair and the Slue-Foot eyes who wouldn’t transcend, she stood stone-cold all day long as cyborgs blinked and laughed around her.
Someone was mocking me with her.
I marched up and shoved her head to the side and rummaged through her scalp, looking at her roots. Now that I looked for it, I could see where her first hair was ineptly sheared away. It looked like someone cut off her straight blonde hair and stuck her head back in the growing vat to get it rewoven. But it was poorly done; it was uneven, and hair roots sprang from the top of her left ear.
Her eyes, now brown, I was sure they had been blue. The signs were plain—great gouges around her eyelids where someone scraped the old blue eyes out. What a waste, just to drive me crazy. I’m already half-crazy from the eyeball floor. And who did it, Tony?
This Slue-Foot doppelganger was my failure and I would get rid of her before I went. Either she would be recycled, or the threat would shake her. Fear makes transcending happen in the biggest leaps, though it was a disgusting tactic.
I dragged Clementine to the basement, to Recycling. Pointed out the iron shears, the pipe wrenches, the acid. The Recycler vat where I would dump her for someone else to deal with. In her case, it wouldn’t just wipe her brain. It would detect her scarred face and remove her whole head, starting over.
“It’s your last chance to tell me if you’re in there,” I said. Her arm shuddered in my hands. She had to be close, so close. I hung her over the rollers that led to the Recycler vat, pushing her face towards them, hating it. “Tony’ll do this to you if I don’t. Tell me.”
“Put her down.” It was Tony, holding a massive pipe wrench.
“She won’t transcend. You want to deal with her?”
“My god, you’re crazy. Put Sue down.”
I looked at the figure in my arms, but it was still lifeless Clementine, in Sue’s hair and eyes. “You did this,” I said to Tony. “What was your plan, try to make me lose it?”
“Put down the girl.”
“Tony,” I said. “You won.” I pulled Clementine back from the vat and shoved her at him. She fell stiffly into his shoulder, his arms springing up to catch her. The pipe wrench clanked on the cement floor. “Take your cyborg and do what you want with her.”
Tony stared at Clementine’s printed eyes. “I’m sorry, man,” he said. “The hair, the body—I thought—I don’t know what I thought.” He stood Clementine upright. A brown curl tumbled across her face just like Slue-Foot Sue’s did.
“You’re a jerk,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m sorry this whole thing got you fired. Look, I told Randy I provoked you. He’s calmed down. I think he’ll change his mind.”
Relief lit me. Things would be fixed. “You just don’t want to work my job,” I said.
“Bingo,” Tony said. “I like grease. So what’s up with this cyborg, anyway? Just coincidence it looks like Sue?”
“You mean you didn’t do it?” I said.
“You crazy? That’s psycho.” He peered closer. “Its eyes are all messed up. They aren’t going to want defects like that in the shipment. Scrap it entirely, now before it transcends.” He pulled Clementine’s arm towards the vat and as he did I saw something play across her face.
There was fear in there, and she let me see it.
“Stop, Tony,” I said. “She’s awake.”
“Wouldn’t you know it.” He let go of her arm, retrieved his pipe wrench. “Well, she’ll have to be repaired.”
Clementine stood there, looking at me. That intuition that transcends reason said she’d been awake a long time.
“Say something,” I said.
Her voice was soft and resonant, slow in its tumble from her lips. “Your hair,” she said. “When you turn your head, that curl falls over your brow. It brushes your forehead.”
Tony shuddered. “This is why no one wants your job. Psycho lovelorn cyborgs.”
She’d been awake a long time and I’d been blind to it. I moved closer, and she breathed into me, a soft metal scent. I touched a brown curl. “You did this,” I said. “You sheared your hair and stuck your head in the machine.” I touched the tip of her ear where the curls sprang out. “You were a little off.”
“I tried three times to get the programming right,” she said. “First it made me a redhead. Then I got male-pattern baldness.”
“Then you ripped out your eyes.” I touched the hollows under them. “For me.”
“I dropped one,” she said. “I crawled after it in the dark.”
I touched her jaw and she tilted her face with its snub nose. How could she have hidden so well? I closed my eyes, drawing her in.
Then I was holding only air.
“You’re in too weird with this,” Tony said. He pushed Clementine back towards the rollers. Her brown eyes were pleading. “It’s defective, man. Psychosis. I’ll take care of it for you.” He shoved Clementine down. Under his breath: “Teach you to imitate my girl.”
It was technically the right course of action per the company handbook, but it wasn’t right. From the closest hook I grabbed iron shears, raised them like a club. “You drop her, I kill you.”
He didn’t budge. “I’m doing you a favor, man.”
“Is it a crime to have a crush? The transcending wake up with weird emotions. Some of them love me. Some of them hate me. They think I’m their fathers or psychiatrists or children. You wouldn’t know what it’s like in there.”
“Oh yeah?” Tony sneered. “I know you’re a creepy stalker who can’t get his own girl. Sure, you want a cyborg? That all you can get? Fine, but you can’t have one that you’ve made over into Sue.”
“I didn’t do that,” I said. “You heard her.”
“One of you’s psychotic,” he said. “Between the two of you, there’s only enough sane for one person. Is that you or the cyborg?” He inched her out above the rollers. One of her eyes leaked around the gouge.
“Fine, I did it,” I said. “Give her back.”
“Sorry, Bill,” he said. “This is for your own good. It’ll fix you.” He dumped Clementine overboard as I lunged.
I grabbed at her shirt, but she fell right through. She tumbled onto the metal rollers, hands grasping for purchase, soft limbs flailing. The rollers dropped her off, down into the Recycling vat, with a crunch.
I turned, swinging the shears at his head. They caught Tony’s cheek as he danced backwards; opened up a shallow curve. Red dripped onto his shirt.
“Aha! Contest for real, is it?” Tony raised the pipe wrench. “This time I won’t stop at watching you face plant.”
“This time there’s no manager to protect you.” I lunged again. He blocked my shears with his pipe wrench; the clang echoed up my arms.
“This is for Sue,” he said, and his wrench slammed into my side, knocking me to my knees. “And this,” and his wrench slammed against my hand, knocking the shears from my grip, shooting spasms up from my fingers.
I thought if I could get to the controls, I could shut off the Recycler before it discovered her defective head. But Tony lunged for me again, and I had to scramble.
We circled around the floor. Clementine’s voice called up to me, crying. The machinery whirred in on her.
One last lunge for the controls, but Tony cut me off. A snick from the vat, and then the crying stopped and there was silence.
I grabbed the shears with my left hand and swung at Tony. He backed away, laughing, parrying with the wrench. But the blades opened, and a wild arc sliced clean through his knuckles, knocking the wrench from his grasp. He swore, backed towards the vat, and then there was nowhere to go. I swung, the shears open wide.
Tony jumped out onto the metal rollers. For an instant he ran them, as fine and easy as any of our birling contests. For an instant he hung suspended over the Recycler. For an instant he looked at me with triumph-bright eyes.
Then his foot slicked backwards on metal and he tumbled forward into the vat. He scrambled up. “Bill! Get me out!”
I watched the machine surround him. His hand was dripping where I had sliced his knuckles.
“You can have Sue! Let me out!”
But I didn’t want Sue anymore. I wanted Clementine, whose headless body was lying in the sorting bin, whose head had been absorbed and reduced to elements.
The machine sized up his hand as defective, and with a slice and pop, took it off, cauterizing its end. Tony screamed. The machine closed around him, its metal reaching for his face, his face with the slice sheared out.
In that moment I looked inside myself and I saw that I held Tony’s fate in my hands. That I loved that knowledge. That I could kill him. I stared into his eyes and he knew I knew it.
Only then did I get up, scramble to the machine, power it down with shaking hands.
I still work on the eyeball floor. There was an inquiry, but Tony remained silent. The company paid for a new hand for Tony and safety measures for the Recycler, but Tony kept all the money instead, screwing a metal hook to his wrist so he could keep the grease vats filled. He built a house for Sue and she left Feet and had babies and went grey in a year.
Every time I see Tony’s hook I close my eyes.
I still work on the eyeball floor, transcending the cyborgs. But I’ve lost my edge. I’m frightened like I never was before. Frightened of the cyborgs that stand behind me, hiding behind their printed eyes.
Every crèche model that comes through, I wonder if its body once belonged to Clementine. But if she’s come through, I can’t see her. I am blind to the cyborgs and the passions they imitate, to the way they steal from humanity with every blink.
There are signs on the eyeball floor. I drink my tea with powdered milk and watch them from behind my eyes. Some days the signs keep me sane.
Know thyself, they say, and I do, oh I do.