Ritual

Posted on February 29, 2020 in GT Fiction by

A bioengineered being finds that he’s not alone.

She appeared at the same time everyday, sliding through the thick shadows toward the comms building. All humans looked small to him, but this one seemed particularly petite, the drab uniform hanging off of her skinny frame. He wondered who she had been, back before everyone had fled from this contaminated world. Her face — round and heavily freckled, with pale eyes like chips of jade — didn’t seem familiar, so she probably hadn’t worked with the Miners. She also didn’t seem like a management type, and besides, those in charge had been the first on the ships when the virus had broken out.

The woman had been fortunate so far. She had avoided the illness that had killed most of the other colonists, although that was where her luck had ended. Most of the equipment in the comms building had been heavily damaged during the riots, and so she couldn’t send out for help. That didn’t stop her from entering the building every day during dusk and trying her best to fix the equipment. It had become a sort of ritual for her; a comforting ritual, albeit a futile one.

Watching her had become a ritual for him as well. All of the other Miners were gone, deactivated when the company bosses had left the planet. For whatever reason, it hadn’t worked on Miner 171, and he had found himself alone in the massive network of tunnels. He had eventually left the mines, wandering out into the daylight for the first time in his life. The light had burned his sensitive eyes, which had been bioengineered for the darkness of the mines, and he had hid in the tunnels until the sun had started its slow descent below the horizon.

That was when Miner had seen her. He had been surprised to see a human still alive; he had buried dozens and dozens of them, digging graves all around the deserted company town. The woman hadn’t noticed him crouching near the mammoth excavators, and that had been a relief. Most humans were uneasy around Miners, who were easily four times their height. One of the newer workers had once described the creatures as “Something out of a friggin’ nightmare.” Miner supposed that compared to the humans they were horrifying, with their wide, golden eyes, clawed hands and powerfully-built bodies.

So he hadn’t approached her, always staying his distance when she darted into the building. And he probably would have continued to do so if she hadn’t spotted him.

For whatever reason, the woman paused outside of her usual destination and stared in his direction. Miner tried to move backwards, away from her view, and in doing so crashed up against one of the rusting machines. The human’s looked up, her face paling as she saw him towering in the shadows. To his dismay, she fled, running away from him like a frightened animal.

Miner could have pursued her. He was faster than she was, he knew that. He also knew that would have been a terrible idea; she’d fight him, maybe hurt both of them in the process. So he waited the next few days, hoping that she’d come back.

She didn’t.

Feeling dejected, Miner retreated back into the tunnels. He had been born there (although it may have been more accurate to say “created” or “manufactured”), and he knew every mine shaft by heart. The oldest ones had been closed long ago, and when the humans had escaped on their ships, he had ripped away the heavy boards and went into the ancient shafts. Whoever had ordered the tunnels to be closed hadn’t done a good job; there was equipment everywhere, some of it still functioning. Miner had sifted through the machines, inspecting each piece of hardware. There were comms devices, and for a minute or two he had considered trying to show them to the woman. But he knew how much she feared him, and so the equipment went back underneath the worn tarps.

Miner still thought about her often. Like now, as he laid down, hating the silence. He was used to commotion in the mines, humans and Miners and machinery creating an endless din as they harvested ore. But he could only hear his own breathing, soft and raspy. His thoughts drifted, and although he knew that he could never escape this world, that a rescue ship would never come for a creature such as himself, he still imagined going somewhere else. Somewhere that wasn’t plagued by sickness and death.

He slept for what seemed like days. It was the fierce howling of the wind that awoke him.

Sandstorms were rare but incredibly dangerous. Back when this had been a thriving town, the company had alerted everyone when the storms were coming. Now the company was gone, and Miner pitied anyone who was stuck out there. From the opening of the tunnel he watched the churning, bluish clouds as they scoured the ground and the buildings and the faraway mesas.

The woman. Miner remembered that she was somewhere in the deserted town.

He was torn between self-preservation and the need to help a stranger. The winds screamed by the tunnel entrance as he debated what to do. They tried to deactivate you, a selfish, furious part of himself argued. And when you didn’t die, they left you behind.

But they had also left her behind, hadn’t they?

He made a decision. Steeling himself, Miner stepped out into the storm. Instantly he felt the wind ripping into his mottled skin, and it was as if every inch of his flesh was being scraped by coarse sandpaper. He fought through the pain and staggered into the street, the gusts shoving him around roughly. No human could have withstood this storm; their skin would be flayed from their bones, their body smashed by the winds. She could be dead, hidden beneath tons of sand. As the winds pummeled him again and again, Miner considered turning back.

I don’t even know where she is.

But he did know; she was in the same place as every night. Shielding his sensitive eyes with his forearm, Miner marched toward the comms building. All that he could hear was the roaring of the wind and the occasional crash as debris hurtled down the streets. Something metallic and heavy struck his chest, hard enough that he gasped and grabbed for the injured area. The pain strengthened his resolve, made him grit his teeth and push forward.

The comms building was ahead. It was a small, squat structure, little more than a shack. There was only one window, and someone had tried to board it up. A board lay half-buried in shifting sand; the others were coming free, banging loudly against the side of the building. Miner bent down, peeked through the open door. The woman had been trying to fix the comms equipment, but now it was so wrecked that he doubted if the most skilled technician could have salvaged it.

He quickly scanned the room, his gaze settling on two green eyes shining in the blackness. Miner didn’t have time to try to reason with the woman; the winds were wearing him down, biting deep into his flesh. He reached into the room, snatched the back of her shirt with his claws. Squeaking, she wiggled in his grip, trying to escape. Miner ignored her protests and dragged her out like a bedraggled puppy.

“Let me go! Let me go!” Her cries were muffled by the wind, and then they were cut off when Miner pressed her up against him, trying to protect her from the winds. She thrashed and punched wildly at him, but her blows were nothing compared to the storm. Head bowed, shoulders squared, he trudged back toward the tunnels, the small human squirming until exhaustion seized her. By the time that he ducked back into one of the shafts, she was silent and motionless.

Miner put her down carefully. “Are you okay?”

The woman sat upright so abruptly that it startled him. “You can talk?!”

“Yes, I can talk,” he replied, unsure what else to say.

“I didn’t think that Miners could talk,” she said, looking toward the entrance of the tunnel. Already he knew what she thinking: she was trapped in here with an immense, intimidating creature. With something out of a friggin’ nightmare.

She turned back to him. “I didn’t think that any of you were left alive, either.”

Miner just nodded, feeling large and monstrous compared to such a small being. The woman stared up at his face, studying the human aspects as well as the inhuman aspects. His sharp teeth, his large eyes, his tangled, raven hair, dusted with glittering sand. At last she said, “I’m Chloe,” and stuck out her hand. He had seen humans shake hands with one another; it was supposed to be a sign of camaraderie or politeness. But it wasn’t something that he had been trained to do and so he awkwardly wrapped his enormous, gray digits around hers, trying not to gouge her with his talons.

“Miner 171.”

“I guess we’re stuck in here for now,” Chloe commented, and he nodded again. An uncomfortable quietness settled over them, and to break it up, he said, “There’s some canned food in one of the storage areas, if you get hungry.”

“Thank you,” she said. “For helping me, I mean.”

He shrugged, still feeling big and ungainly. “You’re welcome.”

“I’m sort of relieved to see someone else. It’s been…difficult.” Chloe pulled her gaze away and looked down at the floor. A strange gasping sound broke forth from her lips, and Miner wondered if she had been injured, if she was suffering from sort of internal damage. She wiped at her eyes, over and over, as he watched helplessly.

“I’ve been to Earth, you know,” she started to babble. “Once I earned my management certification, I was going to go back. It’s not like this world — there are cities and forests and oceans. Have you ever seen an ocean?”

Miner, who vaguely understood what an ocean was but who had never laid eyes upon one, shook his head.

“When they come back for me, I’m going back to Earth and I’m moving to the seashore. I’ll watch the boats coming in and jog on the beach every morning.” Chloe had stopped wiping her eyes, although she continued to examine the floor. “I’m sure that they left me behind by mistake.”

“Yes,” he agreed softly.

Chloe didn’t say anything after that, choosing instead to stretch out on the floor. When she fell asleep, he didn’t dare to wake her.

***

The storm eventually died down and Miner expected his guest to leave. He was surprised when Chloe tagged along, following him through the winding mine shafts. Her voice echoed around them as she chatted about anything and everything that was on her mind: how many courses she had completed for her certification, an ex-boyfriend who had either escaped or died from the plague, the way that Earth looked from space. Miner, who had never been much of a conversationalist, was happy to simply listen.

“All of the comms equipment looks like it’s ruined,” Chloe said as she dug through the pyramids of canned food. “But I think that I can fix it.”

She wasn’t telling him anything new; she had started her nightly ritual again, and Miner watched from a respectful distance. In a way, he was happy that the equipment couldn’t be fixed. He liked Chloe’s presence, and he was beginning to feel less clumsy and gigantic compared to her. An unwanted inner voice reminded him of the undamaged equipment in the tunnels, although he immediately quashed the idea of telling her. He was being selfish, he knew, but he couldn’t stand the alternative.

Chloe found a can of baked beans, handed it to him. Miner punctured the top of the can with one curved claw as she inspected herself, trying to identify any signs of disease. Rolling up her sleeves, she squinted at her arms and chewed worriedly at her lower lip. Miner had seen enough plague victims to know that she was looking for an oozing rash or an unhealthy sheen to the skin.

“How long do Miners live?” Chloe asked him once she had finished.

He didn’t have the answer to that question. “I don’t know.”

“So you could be immortal?” She took the opened can of beans from him. “If so, I’m kind of jealous.”

Miner wasn’t sure why she’d be jealous. All that he could think about was that suffocating silence, and a chill ran down the length of his spine. They ate dinner, Chloe talking about her progress with the comms equipment. Her cheerfulness and optimism seemed forced, and Miner knew that she wasn’t just trying to convince him about her inevitable rescue.

He realized that he knew as little about his creators as he did about himself. Although Miner had worked his entire life with humans, they rarely spoke directly to him, and their lives outside of the mines had seemed so mysterious. Now, as he watched Chloe wolf down the beans, talking and gesturing, desperately trying to find some hope in a hopeless situation, he began to understand them.

After Chloe ate, she headed out to the comms building, and Miner could sense her disappointment when she returned. When will she realize that she’s trapped here? He wondered, watching as she settled down on a pile of old blankets. When will she finally give up?

They slept on different sides of the mine shaft, so Miner was surprised when he later awoke and found Chloe near him, so close that he could smell the cheap, industrial soap that she used. She was on her side, legs bent, and once again he was reminded of how tiny and delicate she was. At first Miner stayed very still, looking on as her chest rose and fell. Then he reached out, pushed aside her curly hair with two huge fingers. Clusters of freckles dotted the back of her neck and upper back like constellations, and he took pleasure in counting them.

She stirred in her sleep, mumbled something unintelligible. Miner rolled onto his side as well and curled his body around hers. He wondered what she was dreaming about, what made her murmur and mutter. It could have been the ocean that she referenced so often, that mysterious body of water on Earth that he would never see. Chloe described it as having different colors, depending on the location. Bright turquoise and deep gray and so many colors in-between.

You need to tell her about the other comms equipment, that unwelcome voice told him.

But then she would leave, abandon him here. He realized how easy it would be to restrain her; compared to him, humans were so tiny and weak. He remembered her desperate and feeble punches when he had carried her through the sandstorm. Overpowering her would be so incredibly easy. But the thought of keeping her as a captive soured his stomach, and he dismissed it. Instead he entertained the idea of being rescued as well. Maybe Chloe could speak up for him and convince the others that he was worth saving. Maybe he could travel to Earth with her.

That’s ridiculous, Miner thought, chiding himself for his foolishness. Even if a ship came and its cargo bay was big enough to hold him, they’d never take a creature such as himself. He had always been disposable to them, like the tunnel boring machines and the excavators. He thought about the comms equipment once more; then, with an angry stubbornness, he closed his eyes and listened to Chloe’s faint mumbling.

***

It took several months, but one day Chloe stopped going to the comms building. She also stopped checking her arms obsessively. Every so often she would look halfheartedly at her skin, but she didn’t seemed concerned anymore. As much as Miner hated to admit it, he understood what was going on, and it filled him with helplessness. He was used to being physically strong and powerful; rock crumbled to a fine powder beneath his hands, and there was little that he couldn’t smash or crush or pulverize. And yet he couldn’t help her.

But you can, Miner told himself, and he thought about the equipment in the mines, which was gradually disappearing beneath layers of dust.

“Can you tell me about the ocean again?” He asked, hoping to distract her, to raise her spirits. Chloe said nothing, just shrugged slightly. She was standing at the tunnel entrance, her attention on the night sky. Platinum light from the moons outlined her freckled face, made her eyes gleam in an ethereal way. At that moment she was the most beautiful being in the universe, and the arguments silently warred in his head:

She’ll hate you for lying to her for so long.

They may not even come for her.

She’ll leave you.

The equipment may not even work.

She needs this.

He agreed with that last argument, as much as it hurt him.

Miner approached the petite human and knelt down so that he was closer to her height. Slowly Chloe turned and looked up at him, her moonlit expression unreadable. He hoped for so much, that she could forgive him, that someone would hear her voice through the vast void of space, that she would remember him.

“Here,” Miner said, gently enveloping her hand in his much larger one. “I want to show you something.”