By Katlina Sommerberg
I am sick — sick from my implant pulsing in my right temple — when a drone cuts the zip ties from my wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles. Shock slows my heartbeat. I didn’t expect to live after Asorez terminated my employment and, by extension, me.
I sit up as its whirling fades away; while a chemical smell on my clothes nauseates me, my hearing warbles like when I had a childhood ear infection. The warehouse, awash in blinding white light, fuzzes around the edges. My head lolls, chin to chest, and I lean right. I almost lose consciousness but for the spray of water upon my body.
Drenched from matted hair to waterlogged shoes, I jolt awake. My breathing shortens and quickens. Teeth chattering, I look up.
A sprinkler drips water from the high ceiling. The drones overhead, each with a carapace the size of a football and four helicopter rotors apiece, avoid the drops. When the stream stops, they reset. They fly in invisible lanes, but a near collision occurs high above, so they’re more advanced than my roomba.
A drone breaks from the swarm — losing altitude and clutching a small box between its two claws — and passes above me before disappearing into one of the endless corridors spanning in every direction. Cardboard boxes of all rectangular sizes stack nearly to the ceiling. From a distance, they look precarious, but I can see the thin wire frames forming a racking system in the wall of boxes closest to me.
I rub my eyes. My glasses are missing, likely taken during the struggle, and squinting to sharpen my vision strains my eyes. Blinking thrice, I try calling my husband through my subdermal implant: my eye strain blossoms into an ocular migraine. I brave the pain for the chance of hearing Rafael’s voice, but the implant isn’t responding.
Another drone flies out, this one from the ends of my vision, seemingly popping out of a horizon where the concrete floor meets cardboard brown. Then another drone. As my senses return fully, I hear the swarm of drones which patrol and maintain this cardboard labyrinth.
Arms circling my body, I shiver. My wet sweater clings to my skin, so I take it off. A draft chills my arms.
Before I can pick it up, a drone dives down and snatches the sweater from my fingertips. The drone’s mechanical feet clutch it in a vice. The drone whizzes off and disappears around a bend. I am too nauseated to give chase.
My toes freeze inside my waterlogged socks, but I don’t dare remove my shoes. I stare at my running shoes. The treads had worn down after six weeks of daily twelve hour shifts.
Yesterday morning, I feigned sickness in an email to my manager to spend time with my husband. I move to touch my wedding ring, but it’s gone. Did Asorez security take it from me? The only thing I remember from this morning are the blows and the pain. And a tranquilizer. I hope my husband has my ring.
“Congratulations, you are the first nonbinary test subject. Thank you for diversifying Asorez and providing valuable outlier data points,” an almost human voice says over the intercom. There’s more words, but all the vowels pop into static. “Kade, listen to the following.”
The voice panics me — terminated Asorez employees disappear, and the instructions match a rumor I’ve heard — but I force my breathing to deepen. Countless hours of yoga taught me the breath is the body’s furnace; while I never mastered the Wim Hof Technique, I have no other option for warmth. So I huddle in a ball and breathe. It helps. But maybe the effect is all in my head.
Another drone breaks from the swarm to circle me. Its motors drown out the heartbeat in my ears.
I hold my breath. Leave me alone, I want to say. Instead, my lips quiver.
It circles me again, then flies off to assist another drone carrying a mini fridge.
I exhale so fast my shoulder pops. My toes uncurl. How could I get choked up like that? I know how fragile those things are, one smack and they’re down. Outside the warehouses, human hands deliver packages more reliably than robots; I’ve seen a tree branch break a drone.
But there lies the danger. It’s too easy to break them, and they’re Asorez’s corporate property. But me? I’m one drug conviction from ending up on COPS.
“Kade, you lied to your manager yesterday, proving you don’t uphold Asorez’s corporate values.” Now the intercom’s voice sounds human — I can tell because his words lean into each other in a Texan drawl — and I guess I’m talking to a person who stepped in for an automatic program on the fritz.
“No, I was sick.” My teeth gnaw at my cheeks. I’d known Asorez used the implants to track us during our shifts, but it was illegal for them to track me in my own time.
“That’s a second lie.” He’s pitying me. “Did you really think a delivery worker like you got a corporate implant with no strings attached?”
I take off running. His tone terrifies me; I know I’ll need every second to escape, if I can escape at all. My wet shoes slip on the concrete, but I stay upright.
This isn’t entirely unlike delivering a package in a sprawling apartment complex, I tell myself, even if my heart’s leaped from my chest to my neck. I — and my coworkers — always assumed an infraction meant fired, not disappeared. My hands shake. I won’t let Rafael think I abandoned him.
“You’re the first to run before I finished my instructions.” He chuckles unkindly. “Usually it’s after. Would you have continued to listen if you heard an AI voice assistant read an automatic script?”
I try blinking up a virtual reality path through the maze of walls. My head pounds again, and I know my implant’s fucked. Damned politicians. When all “unskilled” jobs require mandatory subdermal implants, how wouldn’t a fucked up torture porn scenario become the norm?
I blink again. The headache splits one eye right down the middle.
My sense of balance wobbles. I catch myself against a boxed fan, push off to keep running as my vision clears.
“Listen, Kade, you’re participating in my research experiment!”
I hear him, don’t understand him, because I’m focusing on scanning the shelves for a weapon. I want a blunt weapon like a baseball bat. Or a long sharp object like a butcher’s knife. Anything that might knock a drone down when they return.
Knock off Nikes. Cork tiles. Calculators. Used video games. Plastic spoons. Golf balls. Light bulbs. Power drills — if only I had time! — next to the dildos. Puppy pads. Multivitamins. Disposable gloves. Teacups. Helmets — but in children’s sizes. Quilts. Electric razors. Rabbit chew toys.
My stomach twists into knots. Did the researcher plan for this and remove anything useful from the warehouse? But I keep running, keep looking.
“In thirty seconds, your implant will be rebooted in test mode. You will not be broadcasting as a worker any longer. The drones will identify you as a package thief, and I want you to make it as difficult as possible for them to retrieve you.”
Scanning the shelves, my stride doesn’t slow. Phone chargers. Maxi pads. Microwaves. Sprayable sunscreen — I recognize the brand, the cheap kind banned in Hawaii for reef damage — I used to kill a shower spider. Emergency ponchos. Remotes. Flip-flops.
Accelerating when a drone whirls from the corridor on my left, I run too fast for my shitty eyesight to distinguish the items around me. I can’t focus on outrunning and outthinking an unknown number of drones while inspecting the shelves for a weapon.
I grab a skateboard and fling it behind me. The drone easily dodges, and the dip in my stride allows it to fly closer. The wind from its motors chills my arms.
I don’t have a choice. I’m acting exactly like he wants, but what can I do?
The aisles of everyday junk appear endless, nowhere to hide, but — assuming this is a normal warehouse — I run three times its length on the treadmill to wake up before a shift. If I can dodge the drones long enough to find a wall, then a door, I might escape to the outside.
“Oops, forgot to mention, this test is for optimizing the drone’s lethality settings! If you’re alive at the end, then you’ll’ve surprised me twice!”
While I’m scanning the shelves, I stumble on a box of headphones. My feet tangle up, one tripping the other, and I careen forward. My heart and stomach switch places. I flail, throw my arms out.
Miraculously catching myself by hooking one finger on a shelf, I hold myself up. When I check my shoes, they’re fine, but purple splashes mar the blue fabric. Red flecks the white laces.
My hands fly to my lower torso. I pat myself down, feeling for a cut I can’t see. My dark jeans are completely fine. Too fashionably skinny to run in by choice, but not impossible. Damp, from the water earlier, but not wet-wet like a wound.
The floor is discolored orange-red. Not rusted. Faded. Like a coat of paint from twenty years ago.
My feet are planted in the center, and the edges of this circle are wobbly like a sand bank’s edges. The shelves beside me shine from crimson splatters. A pile of plastic-wrapped toys is covered with too much red to see through their transparent skins, but there is a piece sitting on top that doesn’t belong, the only real thing in this warehouse’s collection: a jawbone swarming with flies.
Their black bodies swarm around me. I start running again, but they orbit my head like unwelcome satellites. The buzzing disorients me as they loop around my ears. One lands in the concha. I smack it but only manage to box my left ear.
My stomach lurches. I don’t want these corpse flies anywhere near my skin. They’re following me, even as I run, avoiding my long hair to land on my neck, and they’re too fast to slap. I can’t think over their buzzing. I need to escape, but how —
The buzzing crescendos until my skull vibrates in tune. Then I’m yanked backwards from a drone grabbing my shirt.
I stagger. Another drone digs its claws into my left calf. It lurches up as I fall. My head catches on the first drone’s spinning blades; I shriek as metal pierces my right cheek and drags up to the crown of my skull. I slam my elbow into the first drone, squishing it between bone and cardboard, but then the second drone yanks my calf.
Thrashing, I rise upside down.
. Did the drone intend to dive forward when the flies distracted me? Or was I so dumb as to be outsmarted by a robot with less self-awareness than an insect?
It’s too easy to drown in self-hatred, so I force myself to calm down.
I wrap my arms around myself. I’m caught. But I’m not dead, and I can’t give up yet. Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
Vertigo lurches my stomach as the drone lifts me higher. It makes no attempt to twist me from upside down, probably because I’m more compliant this way. I lick my lips, thinking back to the massive blood stain and the jaw bone, and I imagine my own head cracking open like a watermelon. Did an earlier victim thrash in my current predicament and bash their head in on the concrete? Is that a better end than wherever the drone takes me?
The corridors shrink under my dangling hair, and they are laid out in a perfect grid. From this height, I can’t distinguish the objects waiting to be shipped out.
But I can see a sealed vault directly underneath us. It’s a windowless rectangle of concrete and steel more suited to a fallout shelter than an automated warehouse; I’ve never encountered a bunker in any of Asorez’s properties, and I’ve dealt with loading my delivery truck all over New York City.
This is my chance! I thrash, legs kicking despite the impossibility of landing a blow. My jean’s calf seam rips open.
The drone jerks sideways. It — and I — jostle up and down.
The rip lengthens to the knee, and the fabric tears away.
The drone slams into a shelf full of squeaky toys. Its motor splurts then cuts off.
I fall like a rock. Ducking my chin to my chest, I curl in on myself to protect my head. My arms are halfway up when I hit the ground.
My right shoulder crunches out of place. Agony bursts out of the joint and radiates outward.
Body flopping to the side, my forehead skims the concrete all the way to my ear. Hitting the floor drives the air from my lungs. I don’t scream. Researchers record their experiments; my last word isn’t going to be a terrified scream.
Both pains fade to a dull throb. Neither ache prevents me from sitting up, but my vision swims. A concussion? I clutch my head in my hands, trying to ground myself, but the disorientation lingers.
Blood sticks to my right palm. Every movement of my arm burns in my shoulder, so I drop my right hand and clutch the collar of my shirt. It’s all I can do without wasting time on a splint.
I stand. My shoulder jostles, fucking up my sense of balance more than the brain fog, with every step. Running? Impossible.
The bunker isn’t 10 yards away. But the drones’ motors whirl; they’re coming from behind me, then the right. I can’t tell how many. Their buzzing merges into a ubiquitous zizz.
Without the option to flee, I freeze in place. If only I could think, but for the noise and the blood sticking to my face!
Then I laugh. Maybe the drones are tracking me from my implant.
My hand rises to the bleeding gash on my face. My fingertips sink in; a stream of blood slides down my skin down to my collarbone. I hesitate, terrified at the idea of exacerbating a head wound.
I think of my husband and his determination. Rafael faced 12 hour shifts, like me, but with seriously ill or dying patients instead of my interchangeable cardboard boxes. Yet I broke first. I was a burden to him: I cried, I complained, I avoided my chores by feigning sleep. Rafael supported me emotionally while we both burned out.
Our date night was supposed to be the first step in a process to turn myself around. To give him a day all about him and his needs as I relearned how to give instead of take, take, take. I refuse to be an emotional leech. Nor am I going to die before fixing my marriage.
All four fingernails sink into the long gash. I can’t feel the implant — the pea-sized metal is easy to feel under smooth skin, but this flesh is mangled — even when my fingertips squelch against unyielding bone.
Frozen, I close my eyes and wish for the blood to slow, for the drops to disappear, but my own life flows over my cheek. The coppery smell is heavier than death, all consuming, and my fingers still. I can only feel the damage I’m doing to my face. There’s too many important veins near my brain, what if I kill myself? I don’t know enough about anatomy for an extraction.
Then the buzzing rises, a whip-whop of steel thrashing the air. I feel as though a swarm of flies are attacking my heart. My head winces away from the sound, and one finger brushes the implant, then chases the little bead deeper.
My fingernails rip into the delicate facial skin. The scratching of keratin on bone shivers my spine, but there’s too much adrenaline for pain.
Finally, I scoop my nail around the implant and flick my finger.
Time slows, as one heartbeat feels like a minute. While my fingers search for the implant amongst my mangled flesh, the metal drops against the concrete. The buzzing’s volume decreases to an infuriating whirl, but the flies dissipate from my chest as the noise’s source moves away.
When I open my eyes, three drones circle a shiny dot on the concrete. They weave around each other — and me, like I’m an obstacle — when one darts forward, the others intercept.
Two brush so close I expect them to lock their whirling blades together. While these two squabble, the third rushes in and grabs the implant. It flies up above the corridors, heading in the same direction as the first drone.
The other two fly off, presumably back to business as usual, and I am alone with my tinnitus.
The nausea in my stomach fights me every step to the bunker. I’m riding the adrenaline. If I hesitate, the pain will destroy me, so I hold my love for Rafael close and never slow.
The metal door has an implant scanner for a lock. Lucky for me, its lights are off, implying it’s not active. I’m guessing the researcher’s arrogant enough to expect takeout deliveries to arrive right on his desk for a $0 tip. Maybe the delivery people end up in the experiment as a “without insider knowledge” control group.
I push the handle. Swinging the heavy door in an arc wakes my shoulder from its uneasy slumber. The pain jolts me. I fight against it, physically, from reflex, and the door hits the wall.
I step through as it bounces, twice, then slides shut at my heels. It’s the only way in or out; mounted monitors fill every available wall space. I recognize the bloodstained shelves with the jawbone from the floor’s circular red stains.
Knowing he observed my every struggle sends ripples of rage down my arms. Despite the shoulder pain, both hands fist.
But when I see the lone human in the room, confusion dampens my anger’s fire. He’s a twiggy thing trembling behind a standing desk and desperately mashing a red push button. The researcher’s desk is covered in family photos — three smiling children — a stack of papers, and a pile of discarded soda cans.
“You can’t be in here. You’re ruining the experiment, and if the experiment’s ruined, I’ll never be promoted.” His chest convulses from hyperventilation. Sliding down his chair, he flinches when his ass pillow falls onto his shoulder. “This is a tightly controlled experiment! I selected every object in the warehouse, babysat the stupid reinforcement learning AI, and you! You’re supposed to run like a cattle in a chute until the drones can focus on you without losing productivity!”
I don’t understand the babbling pouring from his whimpering mouth, but I hate him anyway. I’m hobbled with one arm, but this slob trembles and slides off his ergonomic chair. Bet he’s afraid of my strength from hauling cargo all damn day, same as he thinks himself smarter for his desk job.
“Tell me how to leave the facility,” I order.
As I advance across the room, he folds his limbs into himself to make himself smaller. He cowers under his desk, back against the wall. His ass pillow trembles in his hands. But that doesn’t stop him from holding it in front of his chest like a shield.
I give him a generous five seconds to comply before I grab him by the hair and yank. He’s thrown forward so fast his nose crunches against the chair. Blood splurts from his nose all over his white shirt. The chair rolls, skids on the blood-slicked linoleum floor, and collides against a wall.
“Only way in or out is with the right employee ID on your implant.” His hand clamps over his nose and muffles his accent. “I can’t alter yours. I’m not a security engineer! We don’t have any of those on site, they’re all in the corporate office, so you’re stuck! Comply now, or I’ll order the guards t-to —”
I pull his head so far back his jaw gapes. He silences himself. His perfect teeth shine red from the blood dripping down his lips. His hands fly to mine, but he doesn’t try pinching the webbing of my fingers to weaken my grip. Perhaps he doesn’t know how.
His eyes roll back. He searches for my face. Whatever he finds pales his skin. I don’t need to remind myself he considered me a human-shaped rat for his research, but I do anyway. Makes it easier to reduce him to a human-shaped box hiding my replacement implant.
I clench his short hair and slam his head down. His forehead smashes his keyboard, sending black tiles flying. His palms smack the table. He tries pushing himself up, but I kick one elbow and his body sprawls on the carpet. My grip on his hair is the only reason he didn’t slam his nose against his desk.
His tongue flails. He grunts, maybe from sheer pain, but I’m not in the mood to entertain my torturer’s pleas for mercy.
I cut him off by bashing his head against the table. This time, I’ve learned the weight and balance of his head.
His temple hits directly on the table’s edge. I know I hit the right spot when his body slackens.
I pull his head up and inspect the damage. No cut. He’s out cold.
A glance around the observation room reveals no obvious cutting tool. I would’ve made do with scissors or a sharp fountain pen. Oh well.
I slam his head against the edge hard enough that the impact travels my body. The sleeping agony in my dislocated shoulder flares. My neck and face tense until my jaw pops!
Blinking doesn’t banish the tears, but it’s good enough to see.
I yank his head up. He’s awake now, weakly thrashing against me, and his pathetic attempts rouse a rage inside me. This psychopathic researcher won’t be the reason why my husband wonders if I dressed hired thugs in Asorez logos as a ruse to abandon him. He called me out on all my excuses to avoid meeting his relatives in Brazil.
The next impact seers bright red behind my eyes. Instinctively, I release his hair and grab my shoulder, but that only summons a second, less intense, pain spike.
I stand over his slumped body. His neck is bent at a wrong angle, but a deep gash exposes his implant.
Movement on his monitors catches my eye. Security guards run through the warehouse. SWAT, always quick to prioritize property rights in this country, lead the charge in their anonymous body armor. No time to digest the murder I committed.
I lean over the oozing head wound. The implant, smaller than my tiniest toenail and greased with hot blood, slides off my sweaty fingertips. I can’t grasp it. Maybe I can pop it like a pimple.
When I pinch his skin, the wound balloons out. Blood gushes, covering the implant, but I feel the metal under a thin layer of flesh. It’s pea-sized like mine and wiggly. My fingers slip; I accidentally squeeze it deeper into the flesh.
I don’t let myself look at the monitors. The coppery blood covers the room’s chemical odor. An operating room can’t smell any worse, but I have to pull the implant out before the guns enter. If they think I’m the researcher and he’s the experiment, then I’m free.
I seize more flesh between my fingers. I feel the metal ball at my fingertips and imagine it’s a tiny researcher’s throat I’m squeezing. Blood erupts like fizz from an overflowing soda can, I smirk, my grip never weakening, because I’ve seen worse gore from lancing Rafael’s boils.
Metallic smells flood my senses. I taste red and smell nothing but old pennies. My fingers slip and slide chasing the implant until it splurts out ahead of a bloody gush.
I don’t hesitate to grab it, yet my fingers tremble as I raise it to my temple. The wound has crusted over, so I dig my pinkie and ring fingernails in deep, scraping, scratching the clotted blood off. Fresh blood beads at the skin. Wetness runs down my cheek as I continue ripping into myself, until I feel the absent implant’s hole.
Voices yell behind the unlocked door. They’re far enough away I can’t understand the words.
I squish the implant in, but it slips out into my palm, so I try again, and again, but the fresh blood slicks the metal. It nearly slips between my fingers. I catch it against my neck, wipe it off on my shirt, and raise my hand back to my throbbing temple. My pinkie probes the depressions in the flesh, finds the hole again, but there are deeper fissures.
I press the implant into the deepest. The throbbing beats against my skull. I feel my heartbeat in the ruined flesh against my fingertips; my stomach flips as my vision fuzzes, and I hope it’s a panic attack, because I don’t know what it could be if it’s not. My breathing freezes. Slumping to the ground next to the researcher’s desk, I swallow the instinct to rip out the invasive metal.
Stuck in the gash, the implant wiggles at every slight movement of my head. I dare not move, lest it fall out, so I stare at my trembling, bloody hands as the voices outside rise in volume.
The door slams against the wall again, like when I opened it, and I forget how to breathe. The stolen implant is my only way out alive. Alive! I think of the researcher and my breathing shallows, worse this time, because what if I didn’t kill him? He could wake up and contest me. Don’t I look more like a blue collar worker than a privileged nerd?
“Found the rat’s body,” a voice says. It’s almost drowned out by the scurrying legs and boots slapping concrete. “Dead. Looks like xe tore out xyr own implant. Well, no loss, xe should’ve realized Asorez doesn’t tolerate laziness or insanity. No surprise a twiggy box hauler ended up a rat.”
“Xe tried to tear out mine,” I say. Cold sweat chills my neck at the lie.
The voice’s body steps into view. When he kneels down, every muscle in my body tenses for a blow. He’s wearing body armor sporting Asorez’s logo — a bidirectional arrow from a to z — marking him as private security. While the police always choose my landlord’s side over mine, I have to assume this guy’ll put a bullet in whoever Asorez hates.
My tongue worries around a molar as I hide my tension. If he’s seen the researcher before, I’m dead.
The security officer leans over me to eye the wound, whistles, and shakes his head. “No shit.” He clicks his tongue as he pulls out his scanner. “Glad you’re alive, Doc, but let me verify your identity and implant integrity.”
His hands drop to a pocket. I can’t break eye contact, because I know I’ll flinch if I see the machine. I try to smile, but he raises an eyebrow, so I drop it and count my breaths. From the corner of my eye, I see the bright yellow paint on a machine no larger than a coffee mug and flashing blue lights. My gaze drops to my hands to avoid looking any closer at the scanner.
He raises it to my head and holds it an inch away from my temple. I want to flinch away, but I hold myself still by staring at my bloody hands, hoping I don’t end up with corporate insubordination and manslaughter charges. Holding myself still won’t change the implant, but I can’t release my exhale and give up my illusion of free will. If I speak and act perfectly, I’ll be in Rafael’s arms tonight.
The scanner beeps once and blinks green. Whatever flashes across the small screen causes him to nod to himself.
“Scanner verified his identity,” he says into his radio. “Call the Asorez hospital and tell them to prep an implant replacement.”
My shoulders relax, and I lean back against one of the desk’s legs. I’ve never been so relieved to be misgendered and male-passing, but I have one last hurdle to clear. I suppress the itch to cough and feign ill. Habits from minimum wage drudgery die hard. “I can’t drive like this? So I —””
“Doc, I can see your implant.” He frowns, as if that explains it. “My partner back at the operations center called for an ambulance. We’ll get you in there safe and sound, so sit back, relax, and don’t stress your concussed ass.”
“Alright, but I can only calm down if I call my spouse.” While he warns me against calling with a head wound, I blink to alert the implant. The metal heats up to a comforting warmth against my skull as I imagine Rafael’s phone number — his corporation hasn’t rolled out implants yet — and melt into the floor when the dial tone clicks into fuzzy background noise.
“Kade?” His voice sounds raw from nerves and tears. “How the hell are you alive?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” I say. Glancing at the security officers swarming around, I remind myself they’re hearing everything I say but none of Rafael’s words. “I’m fine now. I don’t know which hospital I’m going to yet, but it’s an Asorez.”
Rafael is silent as he reasons through why the same corporation which kidnapped me is providing medical care. “You need me to pick you up and play along, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” My dislocated shoulder blossoms in pain as I tense up. “And give Luke a call —” While Rafael has an American degree, he’s from Brazil and his brother’s living in São Paulo. “— I’m craving your mom’s pão de queijo after narrowly avoiding death.”
Katlina Sommerberg is living xyr best queer life in a menagerie of stuffed animals. Previously a security researcher, xe burned out and quit. So far, xe hasn’t followed xyr grandfather’s footsteps by becoming a hermit in the mountains, but xe is always tempted. Xyr work has previously appeared in Zooscape, DecodedPride, and other places. https://sommerbergssf.carrd.co/#
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