He awoke to darkness. Again. They didn’t waste precious electricity on a Cog like him, only gave them enough light on the assembly line so they didn’t mangle themselves in the machinery. The bunks--vast hangars of Cogs stacked three-high-- did not deserve the same consideration.
The air was close in the room despite its size, hot and stuffy. It always was. Cogs generated a lot of heat, and air circulation was expensive. Everything was expensive.
C-824 pressed his back against the cool metal of the wall, closing his eyes in relief as it penetrated his damp, overheated skin. He was grateful that he’d been given one of the bunks along the outside of Hangar B3E10, rather than one of the many in the middle. Having his back exposed made him nervous, so he’d never be able to shut off enough to rest. Somehow, none of the other Cogs seemed to have the same problem.
The thin blanket lay discarded next to him on the lumpy mattress. He moved it aside as he eased himself into a sitting position. Around him, he heard the others stirring, awoken by the same instinct as him.
Time to go to work.
He jumped out of his bunk, landing heavily. The Cog that slept two bunks beneath his was still in bed. C-824 placed a hand on their shoulder and shook.
“Wake!” he murmured, but there came no reply. Then, the wave of Cogs swept him up and towards the exit, and there was nothing more he could do.
They filed out of the hangar, bare feet marching in unison to the beat of some unheard drum; nameless, faceless cogs in a well-oiled machine. Still, it was better than being a mutant outcast aboveground. Those were the choices--a part of the machine below, dead or dying above. That had been drilled into them from the moment they had come into this dark and dreary world, and every day since.
Not that C-824 knew why their Masters bothered, as the other Cogs never seemed to think beyond the moment. But C-824 couldn’t help but wonder if out there was really worse than in here.
He glanced at the clock in the corridor as they passed. The flickering red light told him he’d had four hours of recharge. Not bad; it was one of the longer sleeps they’d given the Cogs lately. They were working them hard, though for what purpose, he couldn’t say.
The familiar clank of machines sounded ever closer as the line of Cogs made their way to the workstations. He’d never been told what they were making. They just showed up each time they were expected, and performed the single task assigned to them. Day in, day out.
He knew what the passing of a day was, even though he’d never seen the sun. Some ancient echo of memory implanted in him, by someone, for purposes he could only begin to guess at.
C-824 slipped into the cavernous space--it was too large to even be called a room. Gigantic machines clogged every inch, rising up towards the unseen ceiling. The dull grey light of the station lamps only reached so far.
Once, when a fire had broken out on one of the machines, he had seen right to the top. There was a door in the ceiling, with a ladder leading directly up to it. The door to the outside.
He found his station and settled, ready for another monotonous day. He rolled his shoulders, and felt a pinch and tug deep inside, under the skin.
He moved aside the thin scrap of fabric that covered his torso, revealing the inner workings of his shoulder--gold and silver metal caught the light with a muted gleam. The human-like skin that covered him was expensive to replace, so they didn’t. Since he was an older model of Cyborg, they hadn’t bothered to give him any upgrades for some time.
So, C-824 had had to learn to fix himself.
If he hadn’t, he’d be like the poor Cog from earlier that morning. Likely their chip had become defective. He wouldn’t see them again.
Programmed to self-repair, C-824 had managed to maintain himself to the satisfaction of the Masters for longer than the others. That is, until he’d tweaked the wrong cable in his head and something undefinable had flickered to life within him. He’d felt different-- been different--ever since. And couldn’t let anyone know.
He glanced around, making sure no one was watching, before he reached his thumb and forefinger into his shoulder and tugged at the tiny piston that was stuck. It squeaked. He winced and tried again, this time loosening it enough to move. He tested his shoulder a few times before he was satisfied with the range of movement.
If any of the Masters knew that he was getting gunked up and useless, he’d be scrapped for sure. Many of the others of his generation had disappeared and not returned. The only reason that he was still in operation was that he had the sense to fix himself far beyond what his basic programming allowed.
The chip in his head gave him the knowledge that it was time for him to start work, just as it had woken him up that morning. He wasn’t sure how it functioned, how much it controlled him. It was a terrifying thought, not knowing what was his own mind, and what came from whoever controlled their chips.
A Master passed by, eyeing C-824 with human eyes. There were only a few Masters down on the floor, and they were also the only humans that he’d ever seen, other than the repairers. Each one of them had cold, hard eyes, far worse than the vacant gaze of the Cogs.
It occurred to him that there must be other humans who had survived the purge, living beneath the ground. Otherwise, why would the Cogs be making...whatever they were making? Perhaps there was a whole system of humans and life behind the scenes that C-824 was not privy to.
The Master’s eyes sharpened. C-824 made his gaze go blank and slowly turned back to his station. He forced his body to stay relaxed as the Master wandered over to him and peered over his shoulder.
“You’re slow. Do you need a refresh?” came the slithering voice.
“Analysing…” said C-824. “Negative.” He picked up the pace just a little, enough to satisfy the Master without betraying his sentience.
The Master gave him a last, long look before slowly retreating. As soon as his back was turned, C-824 shivered--something he had not thought himself capable of. If one Master was suspicious, soon all would be, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could deceive them.
He would have to make his plans to leave. Surely, as a non-human, he would have a better chance than most above ground. Though he had no idea what the polluted air might do to his circuitry.
C-824’s gaze was drawn to a jerky movement to his right. A Cog was short-circuiting, their limbs moving and bending beyond their control. He watched, helpless, as the Master moved towards the Cog. He knew that would be the end of the Cog--no longer useful, only fit to be discarded.
If C-824 said anything, if he tried to stop it, he would only get himself retired permanently. He just had to believe that the Cog would feel no pain or fear.
The Master reached out, opened the panel at the base of the Cog’s head, and shut them down. C-824 felt his skin heat at the sight of the Cog’s dead eyes--not the usual heat from the human-like skin trying to contain the mechanical workings of a machine, but the blushing heat of fear.
He would be the next to be retired. Of that, he suddenly had no doubt.
The Master’s gaze rose and fastened on C-824. There was a split second of surprise as he realised that C-824 was watching-- caring-- before his eyes hardened.
C-824 reacted immediately, punching straight through the centre of his station and tearing it from its bolts. He dumped the twisted metal between him and the Master, blocking the aisle between the two massive machines. The only way for the Master to reach him would be to clamber over the sharp and potentially dangerous equipment. Then, he turned and sprinted towards the ladder--the one that led up to the outside world. He couldn’t spare a thought for what might await him. He had to focus on moving his heavy mechanical body with all the speed he could muster.
Light flared, followed by heat, and C-824 realised that fire must have broken out at his station. He hoped that none of the other Cogs would get hurt in the flames, that they’d have enough built-in self-preservation to flee.
But he couldn’t dwell on that.
The Master was catching up--C-824 could hear the heavy breathing behind him. He reached the ladder just as the Master reached him. He put one foot on the rung, then the other--
A hand gripped his shoulder, tugging, but C-824 had locked his hands on the bars. The Master’s limited human muscles were no match for his own mechanical strength.
Until his weak shoulder gave way, leaving him with only one good arm. Sweat beaded on his skin as the fire, and his overworked internal mechanics, raised his temperature.
He began to climb with one hand, even as the Master pulled at him. Soon, he was too far to reach, and the Master must have decided that he had more pressing problems. Suddenly C-824’s path was clear to the very top.
He kept a steady pace; fear of what he might find there warred with his excitement at freedom.
Just a few more steps. Sudden terror froze him so close to his goal. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing the Master still staring up at him from below and the Cogs putting out the fire behind him.
He couldn’t go back there. The only way he could go was forward.
Since his left arm was weak, he locked his elbow around the top rung to steady himself. Then he reached out and pulled at the wheel that would open the door; it was stuck fast. He tried again, putting all his considerable strength and weight behind it. He felt it budge, then move, slowly opening.
It clanged, signaling that it would move no more.
The door was unlocked.
He hesitated. The sounds of chaos still drifted up from below, telling him that he had to open the hatch, that he had nothing to return to. He didn’t know how much power the Masters had over his chip, whether they could sense his thoughts, or retire him from afar. But if they did, at least he would have experienced one moment of freedom. It was worth the risk.
He pushed, then closed his eyes as he climbed up the rest of the steps. He didn’t want to know what might await him until he was in the midst of it; he was afraid that he would choose retirement otherwise.
His hands touched something prickly as he levered himself out. He balanced on the lip of the hatch as he swung his legs out, slammed the door shut, and then opened his eyes.
It hurt at first, the bright light, and took his eyes a moment to adjust. When they did, he saw that he was on a raised bit of land, covered in a soft but prickly natural substance.
Green , he thought, the word coming to him from nowhere.
His senses were overloaded with things he’d never experienced before, sights, smells, and sounds. It was surrounding him, filling him.
Not the bleak land he had been taught, but something far beyond anything he could have imagined.
It was beautiful.
And he was free.