May we present "Coin-Op Cassie" by S.O. Green. The theme this month was "Tech Horror" and they did not disappoint. Join us on Patreon to gain full access to all of our monthly winning stories!
She filled her lungs like they’d never been full before. A gasping, heaving breath, stretching into infinity, sucking in every particle of oxygen until her chest felt like it would burst.
She retched. Nothing came out, not even bile. Her stomach was empty.
The world was blinding light and electric beeping. She covered her face and wept, oily tears slicking her fingers. Everything smelled of bleach.
Had there been an accident? Was she in the ICU? She didn’t have insurance for surgery. If they’d already operated then she was fucked: a slave for life.
She started to panic, started to hyperventilate. Why couldn’t she remember?
Cool it, Cassie. You can figure this out.
She sat up, but something grabbed her by the back of the skull and yanked hard. She screamed as something toppled over behind her and slammed to the floor. Glass shattered.
Pain. Nausea. The world flickered like a bad network connection. Maybe she’d have puked if she hadn’t already seen there was nothing in her.
Her voice. What was wrong with her voice? Garbled and distorted, like a corrupt music file. Was it her hearing, or...?
She slid her fingers up the back of her skull, feeling the break in her hair where the solid, steel port was embedded. She felt the wires trailing out and down her back like a cyberpunk braid.
She tried not to start screaming. Instead she ran her fingers all around the port, then along the length of the wires; she was looking for a disconnect.
There wasn’t one. She clenched a fist around them, and yanked them out instead.
The pain didn’t come again. She gasped in relief, then struggled off the gurney she was lying on.
It was the first time she caught sight of her left arm.
It was skeletal from the shoulder down, made of steel bones and threaded wires. Tiny servos whirled sickeningly with every movement. The ragged skin at her shoulder hid the rest from view, but she could feel them moving in her legs, feel the bellows pumping in her chest, hear the whirring of her pupils refocusing. She hadn’t even noticed. It felt normal. She could lift her arm, twist it, flex her fingers. When she gripped the gurney rail she bent the metal.
Only it didn’t feel like anything. The rest of her was freezing, all alive with gooseflesh, though her arm didn’t have any flesh to goose.
Her other arm was just the way she remembered. Half-tanned, freckled, scarred. Hers, same as it ever was.
She grabbed a steel specimen dish from a surgical trolley beside her bed and flipped it over. Her pale-ass face, like she had no blood, stared back. Her seafoam eyes, a little too bright, and her coppery hair, like the wire under her skin, were there. It was all hers, but wrong. Alive, the way a doll looked alive. Whites too white, colors too vivid.
I’m not an android. I’m not an android. I’m not...
“What the fu-uck?”
She massaged her throat, trying to make the garbling stop. When it didn’t she almost throttled herself in frustration. She didn’t look like herself, she didn’t sound like herself. It was all...wrong. Just wrong.
Someone had dressed her in a hospital gown, but this wasn’t a hospital. She could see it now that her eyes were adjusting to the harsh light, eyes that might have been brand-new a few hours ago. This was just a basement with medical equipment in it, though it wasn’t all medical. Computer terminals crowded the gurney. A welding mask hung on a hook beside an arc stick and a rugged battery, and an industrial lathe lurked in the corner. This place was as much a workshop as it was an infirmary.
There was another bed; it was occupied by a still figure beneath a sheet. The sheet was pulled up over its head for a reason; even so, she couldn’t stop herself from drawing it back.
A steel skeleton. Empty eye sockets. Sticky, grubby residue where synthetic flesh had been carved away. Transplanted. Reshaped.
She was wearing someone else’s skin.
Something else’s skin. This was an android. An android that might have been just as alive as she now was, once upon a time.
She staggered away, wishing she could vomit. Didn’t her donor deserve that much?
She felt so human. The floor was cold under her feet, for fuck’s sake. Her nose was still crooked and partly blocked from the break. She still had the scars on her stomach, the stretch marks around her hips. Her knee hitched when she walked, and the cold made it worse.
How could an android have arthritis?
Good programming, Cassie.
She gulped down another empty retch and limped upstairs, leaving the cold concrete and the whining of her own flatline behind. She’d expected a warehouse or a utility tunnel, something industrial. Instead, she stepped out into someone’s home.
It was an old place. Might even have been pre-Upgrade, before onboard AI and absolute connectivity became a thing. No automatic vacuum cleaner, no voice-activated lights, no network hook-up.
No way to call for help.
She’d heard places like this still existed. World News said the only folks who still lived in them were criminals, or people who didn’t want the corporations data-mining their every waking moment. To World News that was basically the same thing.
It was dark, with nothing but the flicker of passing headlights to see by. Everything had an eerie, silver glint to it. She fumbled along a corridor and into a sitting room full of minimalist cube furniture and a glass coffee table. Everything was in black, or shades of grey, and she could tell it wasn’t just because of the light. Someone liked monochrome.
She resisted the urge to turn on a light, or to just start screaming, though both were pretty tempting.
She needed three things. Clothes - very important - and some kind of evidence of where she was. Then she needed a way out.
Light slow-tracked across the room as an airship passed over, illuminating the man standing in the doorway.
She froze. In the reigning dark she stared at the space where his eyes had been. She’d caught a glimpse of spectacles, lips pursed into a hard line, clenched fists.
“You aren’t supposed to be awake.”
He said it like it was a mistake, one that needed to be rectified.
She snarled, but the thought of speaking, of hearing that garbled voice coming out of her again, made her shudder. She turned and ran at the window.
She hit the glass and burst out into a cold, dark courtyard. She landed in a crouch where her bum knee, perfectly recreated, gave out under her. She skidded over with a warbling curse as the glass wreaked revenge on her legs, shredding up the newly-sculpted flesh.
It felt real. The pain was enough to make her gasp, but not enough to stop her.
She ran out of the courtyard and through an alleyway, ignoring the nagging pain of a shard in her heel. Gown streaked with blood and dirt, eyes wide and wild, she was running blind in a neighborhood she’d never seen before in the middle of the night, chased by a psycho who’d done something to her.
Something terrible, something even her new machine mind couldn’t fully process.
All around were the towering, black shapes of the post-Upgrade tower blocks, covered in blinking lights like server towers. Mainframes plugged into Heaven, lit silver by the eerie light of a moon drifting apart like chalk crumbling in time-lapse.
She couldn’t tell if she was looking for her own apartment up there in the towers, or hoping to sprout wings and fly away. Either way she wasn’t looking where she was going, so it wasn't too surprising that she got hit by a car.
She heard the horn, felt the fender plough into her hip and her back bounce off the hood. Her elbow cracked the windscreen. There was a shriek of brakes, or maybe she was the one shrieking, and then she was tumbling over and over across the asphalt.
The world didn’t stop spinning even when she did.
She blinked, trying to clear the flashing floaters from her eyes, then she realized they were warning symbols.
Because you’re an android now, remember?
One of her legs was fucked. She could feel it kicking spasmodically under her. She’d shredded her knees, and she could see steel through the skin. She was bleeding, but it was watery and insipid, like she didn’t have enough to do it properly, or like she wasn’t a real person.
Her chest ached, but that wasn’t from the collision. Her heart hurt with the pain of a wounded humanity.
She heard a car door pop open, a horrified face emerging from the driver’s side.
“Holy shit! Lady, are you okay? I didn’t see...”
He hesitated. She’d lifted her hand to shield her eyes against his headlights. Her left hand. He stared at the gleaming metal fingers, and the concern dried up all at once.
“Whose android is this?” he yelled, looking around like her ‘owner’ might be loitering on the sidewalk. “It damn-near totaled my car.”
“She is mine.”
It was the man from before. She recognized the spectacles, and the look of displeasure. This time she had enough light to see the neat shirt and slacks he was wearing, and the knife in his hand.
The driver didn’t see the knife, though he felt it as it drove up under his ribs and into his heart.
Cassie gaped as the stranger forced the driver back into his seat. He pulled the knife out only once the man was buckled in, his foot was on the gas, then he wrenched up the hand brake and slapped the car into drive.
It shot past her, on its way to an imminent crash. They might never know the guy driving it was already dead.
They might never know about the woman he’d run down, or the man chasing her.
“You shouldn’t have run,” he told her. “That man did not need to die. You understand that, yes?”
She tried to stand on her good leg. She’d hop away if she had to, but he had another surprise for her. He pushed a button on some kind of remote, and her limbs gave out in unison. She crumpled, but she didn’t lose consciousness.
She was still aware as he prowled closer.
“Leave me alone,” she grunted, voice distorted as ever.
“I can’t.” He brushed the loose hair from her face, his touch strangely gentle. “I’ve already tried.”
“What did you do to me?”
“I fixed you.”
“By turning me into an android?”
“By bringing you back from the brink of death. I almost lost you, and I will not lose you.”
His words stabbed her gut like the knife he’d used. He gripped her broken leg, twisted it this way and that, ignoring the way it made her cry out.
“You were almost complete, almost ready. Still, this will not be much of a setback. I used parts from an old coin-op. Maybe you are too young to remember, but they were the sturdiest models. Yes, you will need to be sturdy. Sturdier than you were before, at least.”
“Someone will come looking for me. You’ll get caught.”
“We both know that is not true, Cassie. No one loves you the way that I love you.” He smiled. It was terrifying. “And, even if they do find out, who cares what a man does to an android of his own creation? You are not alive, no matter how life-like you might seem. Or feel.”
“Why are you doing this?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he scooped her up into his arms and started to carry her back towards his home, towards the basement where she had woken up; to the gurney and all of those tools.
“Why can’t I remember?” she asked. “Why can’t I remember what happened to me?”
“Because that was a mistake,” he said, “and I want this to be perfect.”
She didn’t dare ask him what ‘this’ was. She had the sickening feeling that maybe she already knew.
“We’ll keep trying, until we get it right.”
They passed into the darkness of the alley, and a shadow fell across his face. All she could see was his thin lips in the pale light, smiling gently down at her.
“Do not worry. When you wake again, you will not remember this either.”