3570 words, short story
To Exorcise Mechanical Ghosts
Andy’s arm had belonged to a dead man before it had been screwed into his socket, wires spliced onto his nerve endings, and the thrumming metal drum plunged into the cavity of his ear. The doctor had done his best, of course, as well as could be done with a part hastily severed years ago. They’d cleaved it off the miner who’d worn it before him only just before feeding his body into the blue-glowing fire where an ancient ship had docked and merged with the land, sending the ashes home in an unadorned metal box. It was unceremonious—both the surgery and the cremation—but few off-worlders had an address on file, much less a next of kin to contact when things went wayside.
Besides, if they’d waited long enough for the message to ping between satellites and planetoid bodies back to the unremarkable rock where Andy’s mother lived to receive the affirmative, his brain would’ve swollen into the fracture on his skull, and he would’ve been no use to anyone. He’d asked the doctor to send her word, or at least thought he had; his memories from the operating table were an amorphous swirl of fluorescent lights and the smell of his own flesh burning, blood vessels cauterized and crimped to the machine. By the time he was cleared to return to work, his roommate hastily tempering the invasive species of his work boots and junk mail from the weeks-vacant side of the room, Andy decided it was probably too late to check in. He’d sort through the issue on his video call next month. Or wear a large jacket.
“How does it feel to return from the dead?”
He tucked his legs against his chest, testing the gash running up his thigh with his good hand.
“Like shit.” The top of the snow globe on his bedside table had crusted with dust, a mirror image of the clumps of wet confetti snow that had settled on the bottom. He shook it once, and the snow moved as a block, rising and collapsing back over the tiny brown cabin and its chimney stack. After a moment’s consideration, he tried passing it to the dead man’s hand; the fingers crinkled around it, clunky and sputtering.
Not looking good out there.
Andy blinked, glancing over at his roommate, who was attempting to smother his stack of junk mail in his top desk drawer without opening it entirely. The task seemed to be taking all of his attention.
“Did you say something?”
“Just that there’s too many goddamn bills.”
“You’re supposed to pay those.” Andy leaned back against his pillow, shifting on his elbow awkwardly to lower his back to the thin comforter. He didn’t have to look over to deduce the choice sign language being thrown in his direction, and half-heartedly attempted to replicate it on the new cybernetic hand. There was a brief moment of panic when the dead man’s fingers stalled in returning to their normal position.
The dead man’s name had been Graham. Andy had just under three inches on him, but his shoulders were narrower, meaning the cybernetic kept pulling him off-kilter. Andy’s boss told him that the rest of the team would pick up the slack while he was adjusting, in a tone that indicated this was magnanimous on his part, and Andy should not take too much advantage of his generosity.
The mines had been spliced into preexisting caverns, the only thing marking the ones the crew had carved from the ones that had existed before being the smooth chisel marks along the obsidian. Most of them had been done years before Andy had been born, much less started working. Hastily done, the team’s engineer said, face puckered with annoyance, in a way that did not maintain its own structural integrity, and meant at least fifty percent of them were prone to buckling and collapse. In an ideal world, they’d pause operations altogether, send in a team of specialists to plan the safest possible route, and enact support structures where it proved necessary.
“Let us know when you find that perfect world,” Andy’s boss had said. In the meantime, temporary support structures were placed in areas with the highest volume of workers picking at the walls, hoping to coax amber from them. The obsidian caught light like water, and some people swore if you looked at it long enough, or intently enough, you could see something alive in the blackness, swimming just beyond perception. Those people did not last very long in the unit, transferred to a mining operation off-world, switched professions entirely, or, on some occasions, were pulled deeper into the unexplored zones in pursuit of the wriggling creatures, swallowed by glacial still waves. Andy wondered if it felt like drowning.
Can you spare me one?
He glanced over his shoulder, the beam from his helmet rippling across the walls. The sentence was interspliced with static.
A girl from his unit with a metal drill balanced on one shoulder lifted the other in a semblance of a shrug. She hadn’t heard anything, and the rest of their unit had ventured further into the shaft.
Last one, sorry.
Andy’s cybernetic hand rose clunkily to his ear. There was not much the fingers could tell; just signals indicating the general shape of the device covering the side of his head, the spiderweb brush of his hair growing out around it. It was an older model, and the sensory information was less specific.
Metal fingers waved once before returning to his side.
“I think I’m picking up a different frequency.”
The light across her forehead was dim enough to make out the slope of her face, glowing like a third eye above dark eyebrows. They drew together in concern.
“You need to see the doc?”
“I’ll get it checked out later,” he hefted the electric chisel high into the pit of his underarm. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
Prior to the accident, Andy had avoided the medical center as much as humanly possible. Everyone did, as far as he could tell, lacing their boots tighter over twisted ankles, guzzling salted water through stomach bugs, smearing a wax bandage over everything from minor cuts to machine burns; they kept moving and hoped whatever the problem was, it’d dissipate on its own. The reason was twofold, the first a convenient lie—labor in the mines required a strong spirit that did not seek help for a minor injury—the second, a less flattering truth—the operations’ resident doctor was a bitterly relocated pathologist who operated as methodically and untenderly on the living as he had on the dead for many years prior.
Andy had never had a mind for science, forever wandering both mentally and physically from the fluorescent cage of his local school, fishing squirming insects from craters, and pretending the thin coat of dust that lined the surface of the planet was water made for splashing and kicking. He swore the doctor could smell it on him, the lack of studiousness, the inability to understand.
“It’s not a comm,” he said, holding a light to the side of Andy’s head. “It’s not on any frequency. It picks up sounds from the environment and increases the volume.”
“Like a speaker?”
“Something like—” and didn’t that feel like a platitude “—I wonder if it’s a memory problem.” He tilted Andy’s head so his good ear pressed against his shoulder, fingers tracing one of the wires connecting the earpiece to his shoulder.
“Your arm stores information. It saves repeated movements so perform them more easily, that’s why the exercises I gave you are so important.”
There was a pause then where Andy felt the need to add. “I’ve been doing them.” He had, even though he felt a little ridiculous: pouring liquid from one cup to another, stacking rows of dominos across his desk, squeezing a foam ball between his fingers.
“Since the earpiece is connected, it’s possible you’re getting playback from previous conversations. That is one of the risks with reusing these devices, you can’t wipe the memory fully without getting rid of some of the built-in motor functions.”
He turned to type something into his computer, and Andy shifted back into a normal sitting position, rubbing the back of his neck where the edge of the machinery had begun to dig in.
“You mean I’m hearing a dead guy’s memories?”
The doctor turned, just a bit pitying. “I will call the manufacturer. I’ll send for you if they have any solutions.”
Graham Elgin was 57 when he died. In his wake, he left no children, no spouse, but a company of fellow miners who felt his loss keenly. He’d been grizzled, graying sideburns framing his face with a scar carving across the bridge of his nose. His eyes had been kind, Andy thought, full of mirth and flanked by laugh lines. His personal effects included a stainless-steel tumbler, a busted leather watch, and a stack of mystery comics.
“He was always the first to stand up for someone getting the raw end of the deal. Never let the boss push other people around, made sure everyone took proper safety precautions.” Most of the company had changed out in the seven-year interim, but the veteran’s table made a point of refusing to leave. They offered Andy a slurp of bitter liquor when he asked about Graham, and grinned amongst themselves as it burned down his throat. “Good man. I think every company needs one like him.”
“Let me know if you ever hear the joke about the ox and the meteor,” one woman said, sipping from the flask as if it were full of water. Her nose wrinkled. “You might be a bit young for that one, actually.”
Andy stared at the ceiling that night, pulling the comforter up to his chin. In the next bed over, his roommate snored loudly, chewing on an overlong piece of hair that had slipped into his mouth. The morning was fast approaching, but sleep was proving a wily animal.
—keep going like this—He squeezed his eyes shut.—one’s going to get hurt.—
—doing your job. Why don’t you mind your—
Andy’s boss’ voice had a certain cadence, a roughness that seemed put on rather than earned. I swear he gargles sand before he comes to yell at us, his roommate had once commented. He could recognize it anywhere.
He rolled over and hissed as the movement strained the attachment between his shoulder and cybernetic arm. The familiar popcorn texture of the wall faced him as he tried to exorcise the mechanical ghosts from his head. He matched the cadence of his breathing to the gurgling in the back of his roommate’s throat and the humming of the electrical unity just beyond the wall.
As the world fuzzed in and out of focus, he could have sworn he heard the dead man’s voice say Tunnel 467.
Tunnel 467 ran just underneath 328, fledging off from the central branch of 460 to the west. It collapsed one week ago, a combination of planetary rumbling, excessive mining of the lower halls of 328, and a previously unknown crack in the stone, arcing up from a misplaced explosive in Tunnel 635 six years earlier. The outer edge of the tunnel had been boarded up hastily while Andy was in surgery, the doctor trying to ease the swelling in his skull and salvage what was left of his motor control on his right side.
He expected to feel something there; perhaps something profound about the nature of mortality, anger at how close he’d come to death’s door, or relief that he’d been pulled back before he could knock. Looking out, however, all he could see were rocks. He passed a flashlight across the surface, watching black glass ripple like water.
“Did you know it wasn’t safe?” he asked the dead man by way of the empty tunnel. For what felt like the first time in days, the earpiece was silent.
A message from his mother had arrived the other day; they were lobbying for a park in his hometown, clearing pathways and setting up benches along the rocky crevices he’d used to climb. She said she’d send pictures, told him to eat vegetables, and to remember their call was coming up in a week. He’d need to tell her before then. It wouldn’t be fair to show up like this, metal plating down the side of his face, wires streaming down his neck, without some forewarning or explanation.
But in her mind he was still, might always have been, a distractible boy with skinned knees and an aquarium poster peeling from his wall. Andy wasn’t sure he was ready to take that boy and press his face into the dust until he choked.
Shit. It’s dark.
“Yeah,” Andy muttered. “I know.” He kicked a pebble at the edge of the hallway further in and listened to it smack against the mound stretching up to the ceiling. If he looked hard enough, the stone seemed to move like waves did in films. Ebbing and flowing, grasping for ankles along the shoreline.
“I’ve never seen an ocean,” he told the rocks, the dead man. “There’s supposed to be living things, even at the bottom where there’s never any light. Like, giant, flat things that can’t see but move around by feeling.” He swallowed; his mouth tasted of dust and iron. “And it’s super cold. Like here, I guess, before the mines were built.”
Andy flicked off the flashlight and turned back to the adjoining tunnel.
“I’m sorry you died. Please stop talking to me.”
What the hell do you think you’re doing? The static blitzed across his brain, high-pitched and screeching; by the time his mechanical arm had reached to protectively cover the plated ear the way his remaining one had done to the other in an instant the sound had stopped.
Andy lowered his hands cautiously and stood there for a moment in a silence that sounded like death.
“What exactly happened to Graham Elgin?”
The doctor paused his typing. Andy was sitting on the cold metal table in his office, halfway through his check-in regarding dexterity and motor function. He had not said anything regarding the call made to the prosthetics manufacturer, so Andy could only assume whatever response he’d garnered was not encouraging.
“An accident. Could you tap each of your fingers against your thumb like this?”
Andy repeated the movement. “What kind of accident?”
“Slower. Fingers one at a time.” The doctor frowned slightly. “Blunt force trauma. A small collapse caused by over-mining.” A pause. “Good. Now follow the movement of my finger with yours.”
The medical center was small, the room in which most normal check-ins were held was the same room where they had done surgery, and the smell of antiseptic was enough to burn the inside of his nostrils. There was a bucket of sanitation fluid against the counter with the gleaming silver prongs of instruments poking from inside. As far as Andy could tell, there were no personal effects, save a degree attached to the far wall, and a brown woolen overcoat hanging on the back of the door.
“Forwards and backward, not just side to side.—That’s better. How does that feel?”
“Okay? Kinda stiff but . . . okay.” He chewed his lip, teeth picking at the dead skin peeling off in whitish petals. “Was there ever an investigation done?”
“Nothing beyond the usual. I don’t have to tell you about the rate of accidents.”
“I guess not.”
He made a note of the adjustments to his exercise regime and practiced applying ointment and grease to the metal until the doctor hummed in satisfaction. He arrived late to dinner, sipping brown broth through a tin spoon and listening to his roommate do impressions of an assembly speaker who had once tried to teach his elementary class basic safety procedures for gravity modular fluctuation. His earpiece crackled to life again.
—Talking about, if you know what’s good for you. Accidents happen all the time.
The words were arched, wrapped around sand. Andy looked down at the reflection of the ceiling in the spoon, warped and upside down. Across the cafeteria, his boss, the head of operations for their team, was folded neatly in a plastic chair.
“Andy? You okay?” His roommate’s expression drew tight. “More voices?” It was a playful jab that fell flat atop the concrete floor.
Andy stilled against the wall, his unit filtering forwards through a narrow opening in the cavern walls.
“Just Andy. Sir.” The metal arm pulled him sideways, pressing his shoulder against the wall. Andy could not recall having ever gained the personal attention of one of his superiors prior to the accident.
“Dr. Cavanagh has been telling me you’re struggling with some . . . auditory feedback loops in your earpiece, is that right?”
“It’s just an adjustment, is all.” The line of people in front of him was dwindling, it felt a bit like being in an hourglass as time began to slow. Andy managed an approximation of an upbeat look, though it hardly mattered, with half his face hidden by the helmet.
“Of course—” Serpentine accommodation, Andy felt it curling between his boots and up his legs. “I remember it took Graham a bit of time as well.”
The name hit like a stone to the chest, like what he imagined dropping into cold water would feel like.
“Oh,” was all he could get out.
“You seem like a smart kid, Andy. You know what you’re about, what’s good for you. Am I right?”
“I like to think so.”
“Good, good,” a hand squeezed against his good shoulder, some mock-up of a paternal gesture. “Glad to hear it. You banged up your head a fair bit, and sometimes that can give people strange ideas. Dangerous ideas.”
There was nothing left in front of him but the alcove. Beyond was the kind of darkness that snacked on bones and lights and wandering minds. Andy nodded once.
“I’m glad we had this talk.”
I don’t think Graham Elgin died on accident, he tested the words in his head, rolling them like marbles, stacking them like dominos. The booth for the video comm was located near the medical bay, squeezed between the cafeteria and the set of two metal shelves that composed the library.
In the end, he’d sent his mother two sentences of warning. Just wanted to warn you, I was in an accident. It’s not as bad as it looks, please don’t worry. Two sentences, perhaps cowardly in their vagueness. She’d never wanted him to take this job, begged him to take a job at the coin factory with her, even though they both knew they’d never clear rent that way.
He smoothed his hair as much as possible before sliding into the booth and flicking on the comm, leaning back slightly so most of the cybernetic was cloaked in shadow. I’m wearing a dead man’s prosthetic and I think he was murdered.
She told him about the park project and pretended not to notice the yellowing bruises down the side of his face still glistening with ointment and metal grease. He told her about his roommate’s latest failed attempt at virtual dating and pretended not to notice the strained pinch to her smile whenever she thought he wasn’t paying attention.
“I miss you.” It slipped out in one of those moments. He bit his tongue afterward, teeth digging into the soft flesh. That kind of thinking never ended somewhere good.
“I miss you, too.” Her eyes caught the light, water sparkling like obsidian walls. Behind her was their old kitchen counter, the halo of the sunlamp splayed across the ceiling. They’d never had one growing up, used candles and battery-operated lanterns instead in the months when the planet’s surface was untouched by the sun. She’d bought it with the first month’s wages he’d sent back home. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Send me pictures from the park.”
The doctor summoned him to his office a few weeks later.
“You’d need to start the exercise regimen all over again,” he said. “But a full manual reset should delete all the misplaced audio clips.” A head tilt. “It’s up to you.”
“Can I think it over?”
Andy found himself back in Tunnel 467, staring down at the now partially cleared cave-in.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you. It was wrong.” He pulled his knees up to his chest, pressing his good thumb and forefinger into a stone that had crept beyond the arcing entrance to the cave. The metal fingers screeched along the ground, but he found the sound more reassuring than unwelcome.
His mother had sent pictures of the park with her last letter. It didn’t look much different than the stretch of dusty landscape had looked before, just with a few footpaths and benches, but he could imagine her sitting on one of them, watching the distant sands rise and fall like waves.
One day, he’d take her to see the ocean.
Andy returned to the doctor.
“I’d like to do the reset.”
The dead man’s voice was quiet again. The silence was enough to drown in.
Laney Gaughan (she/her/hers) loves to write about haunted places and people. Her work has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, Crow and Cross Keys Journal, and Ram Eye Press, among others. She lives and works in Wisconsin.