I woke in a nest of wires, my arms pulled off to either side, my head back and my eyes fixed at the ceiling. There was a man standing above me, straddling my form, perched precariously at the mouth of the recess I was tucked away in, one hand gripping the frame, the other feeling around the back of my neck. He moved by touch alone, certain in his movements, and his fingers closed over the knot of the wires that resided at the base of my skull and pulled, steadily, drawing it out of the socket and I inhaled sharply at the sensation. Like something had been taken from me, or that I'd lost sight of something important. A piece of me gone. It was a keen sense of loss and my eyes went wet with moisture even as he dropped his hand lower along my neck, almost to the shoulders, and pulled out another plug. The wires by my eyes were thinner, and when he pulled these out my vision went black for a moment and when it returned I felt the world was less clear, like a gray haze had been pulled over the colors. I could move now, and I turned my head, staring at the shadows of my prison while the man completed his work. Wires all along the spine. Two at the base of my ribcage. One on each wrist and ankle, there to monitor my vitals and ensure the life support was operating correctly.
Then, when it was done, he freed my body from the machinery, pulling me up and out. I grunted at the effort, my muscles weak from atrophy, and he remained there a moment with myself in his arms, waiting to see that I had my feet under me. There was clothing folded neatly just beside us on the floor. He released me, slowly, and I turned and knelt beside this, unfolding the top item. His name was Keven. One of the ship's engineers. I only allowed a handful of people in this room while I was wired into the ship. I did not like to be seen so exposed and helpless.
“The captain isn't happy,” the man said.
“I'm fully aware of that,” I replied.
They forgot, sometimes, that I knew everything that went on in the ship while I was plugged in. Keven – sweet and gentle – especially seemed prone to filling me in on what I already knew. He rarely had reason to interact with my avatar while I was plugged in, as he was not the head engineer. I did not permit the head engineer to unplug me. I did not trust him and could not abide the touch of his hands on my bare skin. Keven, at least, would turn his back while I dressed, as if privacy still mattered. I pulled the shirt on over my head and stood to put on some panties.
“He wants to speak with you.”
“I spoke with him plenty already.”
I sighed softly and paused in buttoning up the front of my pants. My legs were already trembling just from the effort of standing here.
“It'll have to be in my room then. Is Garyn outside?”
I was relieved at that. He'd help me make it the rest of the way. I could eat then, the first real food I'd touched for some time, and receive the captain in my own quarters where I'd at least be comfortable for the argument that was to come. I slipped on my shoes and made my way out to the corridor. The door to the pilot's station was heavily armored and sealed with a biometric lock that only a handful of people on the ship could open. The people I designated. Keven was one. Garyn was another, as was our captain. There were two more – the ship's doctor, and another one of the engineers. The ship was not mine, but inside that room I was in complete control. It was a bare thing, devoid of anything except my bed of wires, all feeding me directly to the ship's computer, turning me into the vessel and letting me leave my flesh behind and become the metal that was the ship's skeleton. I was not even aware of my body during this time. The ship was my body, her hold my belly, her bridge my brain, her engine my heart, and I felt the starlight on the skin of my exterior shell. Our doctor monitored my vitals and it was she that finally decided I needed to leave my nest behind. Stand. Use my muscles before I destroyed them.
Garyn was my bodyguard. He nodded at Keven as we exited, indicating he'd take over from here. I'd been with him a long time. He was first assigned to me back when I was serving my mandatory ten years with the guild and once that was done, we went independent together. He introduced me to Captain Roi and I signed on with the massive cargo transport ship three years ago. It was a comfortable enough job. There was no threat of being assigned to military duty, as had been the case with the guild.
I leaned on his arm as we walked and he supported some of my weight, letting me pick our pace. He was a tall man with an otherwise average build, his brown hair scruffy and a bit of stubble on his chin. When we were on the ship, he carried a pistol at his waist. When we were off the ship, he carried an assault rifle as well. My short hair, the implants visible alongside my eyes and at the base of my skull – it was obvious what I was. I was too valuable to risk in any way.
It assured for me a comfortable life. My quarters were smaller than only the captain's, with a sitting room adjacent to my bedroom. Garyn was stationed just across the hall, in case I should need him at a moment's notice. There was a bracelet I wore on my wrist that I could use to signal him at any time. I put this one while he called to the kitchen to bring me something to eat, and then to Captain Roi that I was up and could speak with him now. The food arrived first. I was already well into my meal when the captain arrived. He glanced around the room first, as if taking it in for the first time. A nervous gesture. I had little in the way of personal effects. I spent too much time inside the mind of the ship to feel much attachment to my own quarters. Then he came and seated himself at the table opposite me, taking up the only other available chair. Garyn hovered by the door, discreetly out of the way, but close enough to be intimidating. I doubted Roi was concerned. We were, after all, technically in his employ.
“We should have stopped at Hebus,” the captain said.
“We've had this conversation already,” I replied quietly.
“Have you looked in a mirror yet?”
“I'm fine. The life support-”
“-is only that,” he interrupted, “You've clearly lost weight. You look terrible. You were in there too long.”
“We've got deadlines-”
“Screw the deadlines! We're not transporting perishables and the agreement was for a window, anyway. Everyone knows we have to make allowances for the shortage on pilots right now, that's just part of doing business. Next time I say we stop at a port, we stop. I can't have you too weak to fly.”
“Captain,” I said evenly, looking up to meet his eyes. He was a thin man, not terribly imposing, but his gaze was sharp and intelligent. “Hebus has a strong military presence and the guild's word there doesn't count for much. They'd enlist me and ignore any protest the guild lodged with them.”
“I wouldn't allow that.”
“You couldn't stop them, what are you going to do, take on the whole damn navy?”
“We need a second pilot.”
“We're not going to get one. There's too many ships out there needing one, someone will always be willing to pay more.”
He sighed and stared at the table. I realized, then, that he wasn't here to complain about my refusal to drop out of deep space to take a breather and unplug from the ship. He was simply complaining about how things were, how unavoidable our situation was. I listened with only a slight measure of attention as he described his plans for while we were docked in orbit, how long it would take to unload and the contracts he was considering for our next voyage. It mattered little to me. I wouldn’t be needed until we were set to depart again, when I would again return to my world of metal and wires and lose myself to the ship. I informed him, just before he departed, that I would go planet-side the next day. Once I'd rested a bit. The captain hesitated and looked over at Garyn.
“That's fine,” he said, “Keep her out of the bad areas, okay?”
“I know what I'm doing,” Garyn replied.
The captain took that as good enough and let us be. I finished my food and told my bodyguard I'd be getting some sleep now. He left me alone, hesitating only a moment to ensure I could walk well enough on my own. My bedroom was as sparse as my living area. Garyn maintained it while I was away and I would find it cleaner than I'd left it. I wasn't certain if he were just that organized, or if it was part of his professional pride. He took care of me. I paused before the mirror on the wall, staring at my reflection. Like Roi had asked. My skin was pale, the sort that came from sickness and not just a lack of sunlight alone. There were shadows under my eyes and when I lifted my shirt, I could see my ribs against the skin. I had lost weight. I let the fabric drop and gave a short sigh. What could be done? There weren't enough pilots. I had to remain in that cage for as long as it took.
I did not like going planet-side with the other crew members. I made far more money than any of them and the places I liked to frequent were not affordable for them. I also enjoyed the isolation – the solitude of being alone in a crowd of people. I supposed that was in part why I joined the guild to begin with and submitted myself to the procedures that made it possible to become part of the ship, a computer made of flesh. I liked machines. I liked isolation. The guild was happy to have me. Deep space took more than numbers to navigate. It took an instinct, a human eye to understand the illogical way space twisted and distance fell apart. There weren't as many pilots as there had once been. Reality had intruded and the glamorous picture the guild painted did not stand up underneath the scrutiny of truth. Certainly, we made a lot of money. And certainly, there was power and prestige in being the one thing that would see a ship through safely. But to spend all that time trapped away inside a body of wires, known to the crew only as an image on the screen? To emerge wasted away, to be forever shadowed by a bodyguard because of the ever-present weakness it left? To lose the sanctity of the mind? None of this was desirable.
We went shopping for new clothing so that I would have something to wear that fit better. The staff at the stores we visited were accommodating, for they saw the silver studs that filled the plugs at my neck and eyes and knew I would not be wanting for currency. They politely ignored my bodyguard, as if they didn't want to acknowledge the reality of why someone would need to be guarded with an assault rifle, and I saw a handful of customers decide to come back later at the sight. I made arrangements for all my purchases to be delivered to the ship. Garyn did not carry things while he was watching over me and I was still too weak to do so myself. I had to pause in-between trying things on to sit down and catch my breath.
“I think we should get lunch soon,” I said to Garyn when we returned to the streets.
The planet was a fairly open one with wide streets, open to the sky, and the buildings were only three or four stories high. The temperature was a bit warm for my liking and I wanted to be back inside. There was greenery along the sidewalk – a welcome addition – and there were few or no holographic signs displaying store names. This was an upscale part of the city and they aimed for a different look, one more reminiscent of small-city Earth from some time back, with wooden signs and shop fronts framed by trees and bushes.
“There's a place,” Garyn said, pointing. I squinted at the shop. The light hurt my eyes and it was difficult to see while out on the street.
“It doesn't look open,” I said.
“No, the windows are just tinted. I think it's open. It'll be out of the sun, at least. You're starting to burn.”
That hadn't taken long. I glanced at my bare forearm and hissed. I'd forgotten to cover up in protection before leaving the ship. I followed Garyn without further discussion and he held the door open for me and I stepped inside. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. Behind me, I heard the click of the door shutting behind us, then a quiet beep of a lock sealing it shut. I started to turn, to look to my bodyguard, but someone grabbed me from the side. I had not seen him when I entered. His arm went across my neck, cutting off my oxygen, and I was too weak to do more than a token struggle as he dragged me with him back into the interior of the shop. It was dark, and while I could see a few other people around me, I could not make out details. Where was Garyn? He'd been right behind me.
“About damn time,” I heard someone mutter as I was pulled along.
“I didn't want to rush her along.” The voice was from behind me. I went still. Garyn. He was there and was doing nothing.
There was a vehicle parked just behind the shop, in an alleyway. The man threw me into the back and then got in himself. I crowded to the far side of the seat, up against the door, staring at him as he shut the door and situated himself. The windows were dark and I could see he held a thin rod in one hand. I recognized its purpose. They packed an electrical charge and one blow would incapacitate someone. The threat was obvious.
The worst was, whatever was happening, Garyn was in on it. I glanced down at my bracelet. Was there even a point to triggering it now? He was the one who would receive the signal. I did not want to think on that yet. I wasn’t certain I could survive it. Not yet.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked. My voice was uneven. It was difficult to remain calm, but the sense of unreality to the situation helped.
“Someplace quiet where we can reprogram your memories. Got a client lined up already.”
Things clicked into place.
“You're selling me,” I whispered.
“Making quite a bit of money off it, too. Oh, don't look so upset. It's a bigger ship and they've arranged for a pay increase for Garyn. We get the finder's fee, you get a new assignment, and as far as you know you and your current employer parted on amicable terms. You'll like your new captain. He requested that specifically.”
I felt sick. There was a jolt as the vehicle started moving and then it evened out as the driver pulled into the street and gained acceleration. It was a land-bound car, which meant wherever they were taking me was likely within city limits. I knew, with a sort of distant logic, that this happened to pilots. We were a valuable commodity, and so of course there were people willing to exploit that for their own gain. They could take us, wipe out a portion of our memory and replace it with whatever they wanted, with whatever suited the buyer. This vulnerability, this exposure of our minds, was why there were not many pilots anymore. It was why we had bodyguards.
And mine had just betrayed me. I cried then, silent tears, and it felt like there was a pressure in my chest. Something that hurt with a slow, steady ache. I wasn't afraid. I was too precious to harm. I saw, instead, how it would go. They'd turn me into whatever they wanted and when they were done, I'd not remember any of this and I'd blindly trust Garyn – they'd ensure it – until he found someone willing to pay even more and this started over again.
I buried my head in my hands and wept until we reached our destination.
It was an apartment, and they brought me in through a garage adjoining it. There was money here, then, as the parking was private and the apartment was rather large and elaborately furnished. I was taken to a room with no windows, lined with computer terminals, with a spot cleared in the middle of the floor. I recognized the wires laying strewn about around it. The two small ones that would plug in near the eyes. The larger one for the base of my neck and its twin at the base of my skull. The six along my spine. I twisted in the grip of my captor, a soft whine escaping my throat. I could not see Garyn. Could he not even look at me, then? Coward. I felt a surge of hate in that moment. I'd trusted him when I was at my most vulnerable. He had access while I slept inside my wire nest, when I was completely unaware of my body, left there alone and forgotten.
“Everything is ready,” the man at the computer terminals said, not looking up from the screen, “I've got our buyer's requirements all ready to upload.”
“How long will it take to hack her?”
I was forced to my knees. The man had his hand buried in my short hair and the stun rod was across my chest, pressing just between the collarbones. He'd only have to flick it on.
“Twenty-four hours, at least, assuming the guild hasn't come out with any new advancements in their software.”
“Garyn wants to review what you're putting in there, just to make sure there's nothing objectionable.”
“He won't find anything. It's pretty standard – loyalty towards the captain, an inclination to agree with whatever he wants, unwillingness to leave the ship. Go ahead and plug her in.”
“No,” I protested, stirring at that, “Please don't.”
“Sweetie,” the man holding me grunted, “You won't even remember this. Just shut up and hold still. Don't give me a reason to hurt you.”
There were footsteps from the doorway and Garyn walked into view. He did not look directly at me, just stooped and picked up the two wires that would go at my eyes. I jerked back as he reached for me, but the hand in my hair held me immobile. I felt his fingertips against my skin, then a slight pressure as he plugged the wires in. My vision went black. There was no optical feed from the computer and so I was robbed of my ability to see anything at all.
“Garyn,” I whispered, “Have you done this to me before?”
No answer, but there was a hesitation before I felt his hands touch me again, this time removing the stud at the base of my skull and replacing it with the wire. There was a sense of dislocation, like I was falling, and I moaned and slumped to the ground. The man holding me let go and I lay there on my side, fighting off waves of nausea as the world around me spun. Like I was lost blind in the void. Garyn took my shirt and I cried after he pulled it up over my head, wrapping my arms across my chest and drawing my knees up. He finished his work in silence and stepped away, leaving me there, and I felt the computer take hold. Looking for a weakness in the software that protected my mind. It left me dazed, like all those electrons running across my brain had to be suborned into fighting off the attack, and I was left in a half-awake state with that constant sensation of being on the edge - of falling, hovering, my balance waning. There was no pain. There was little sensation at all. I could not even feel the floor beneath me, nor comprehend the passage of time.
I woke to hands at my neck, pulling the wires free. They were rough, almost ripping them off, and this did make me cry out. I struck at the person doing this and I felt hands close around my wrists, pulling them up where I was helpless on my back and he could finish his work. The wires at my eyes were yanked free and my vision returned. I stared up at the man above me, his thin face hard with anger, and saw that there was blood at his shoulder, staining his gray jacket almost black.
“Captain,” I whispered.
I knew him. I remembered him, as I should remember. Roi. He was here. I twisted my neck, staring back at the man that held my wrists pinned. Keven. There, at the door. Another one of the crew, watching the hallway, a rifle in his hands. The engineer let me go and I remained still, letting the captain roll me onto my side so he could reach the plugs along my back.
“Garyn is dead,” he said, his voice cold, “We shot him. You'll need to speak to the guild about hiring a new bodyguard.”
“How did you find me?”
“You're too damn precious to lose, so I swapped out the studs you wear with some bugged ones. I've got one of my own security crew keeping tabs on you. Been that way for over two years now. I don't believe in leaving my pilot's protection up to one person.”
“You – came for me?” I whispered.
“Of course.” He paused, then sat back. I was freed from the wires and I sat up slowly. The captain reached back and handed me my shirt. “What, you didn't think we would? The local authorities are too slow to respond with offworlder affairs, especially when money is being tossed around.”
I looked about the room. The programmer was slumped at the console, the back of his head soaked in blood. More was sprayed out across the monitors. We'd have to leave the planet quickly, I realized. Before the authorities could start making life difficult for Roi. I hoped he had a contract lined up and ready to go by now.
“How long was I out?” I whispered.
“Took us five hours to catch up once we realized what was happening. We're going to stop at the first planet with a guild presence after this one. I want your head looked at.”
The system could run its own repairs, but I nodded and did not disagree. It was easier that way. Roi helped me to my feet and kept an arm around my chest, helping me walk, as if he were afraid I would collapse at any moment. Perhaps I would. The dizziness remained and I felt weak, numb with shock. I avoided looking at the bodies in the corridor. I didn't want to know who they were. I didn't want to recognize one.
There was a transport ship just outside, one of ours, that resided in the cargo bay when we were in space. It'd take us up to the ship in orbit. One of the crew piloted it and the rest of us took up seats in the rear. Roi leaned back as we lifted up, closing his eyes, one hand over his shoulder. He'd been shot, I realized. The blood was his own.
“I need to ask,” I said quietly, “Is this – is this how you got me to sign on?”
“Would you believe me regardless of how I answered?” Roi replied. I could hear the lines of exhaustion and pain in his voice.
“If my memories were rewritten, then I guess I can't.”
There was a pause. The other crew in the transport were studiously ignoring the conversation. Some of them were hurt as well, I realized. I knew that a ship's crew was often responsible for their own protection, but I had not seen it so starkly, not like this. They'd come for me, and risked their own lives in doing so.
“Honestly,” Roi said, “I don't know if that's the case. It could have been. I went through an agency that I believe is legit, and they put me in contact with you and Garyn. If they wiped your memories first – made you think you wanted to leave the guild and go independent – then I have no way of knowing. I'm sorry.”
“I've been really loyal to you,” I whispered, “Haven't thought of leaving once. That's one of the requirements they said the buyer wanted.”
“Yeah.” Roi looked away and closed his eyes. “Yeah, you have.”
No one said anything else after that.
The doctor saw to Roi and the other injured crew members first, then she looked me over. Aside from being weak from staying in the ship's nest so long, I was fit. They hadn't hurt me – of course they hadn't, I was too precious. I could sense the doctor wanted to say something more, to speak of what had happened. Of Garyn's betrayal and death, and perhaps even my lingering doubts that my current set of memories – this reality – was even true. I couldn't though, not yet. I returned to my room, sat on my bed. Stared at the barren floor for some time. Garyn kept it so neat for me. Then, deliberately, I stood and went to my closet. There were some packages there, the clothing I had purchased just before Garyn led me me away to be kidnapped. I opened these and thew them onto the floor, leaving a trail of crumpled fabric in my wake. I left them there.
We left port in less than forty-eight hours after my rescue. Roi got the contract signed and the cargo loaded and we were gone before anyone even found the bodies in the apartment. I slipped into my nest of wires and this time, it was Roi himself that plugged me in. I shivered the entire time, remembering the feel of laying there on the hard floor while Garyn did this, laying my mind bare before the programmer and his software.
“It's okay,” Roi murmured as I lay back, putting my arms out to either side, “You'll be fine.”
No. I wouldn’t be fine. But I could lose myself in the ship, throw myself into that void of space and feel the starlight on my skin, and for a little while I could forget that I was not alone inside my own flesh. That my memories were not secure and that they might not even be my own.
This was why there were so few pilots. Roi stepped back and I inhaled sharply as the ship took hold, sending me spiraling away from my body, falling into the belly of the beast where I could forget my flesh and live in a body of steel.
It was the only thing I knew to do.