Exterminators

After an eight-month stint on Mars working cargo, my company cut ties without severance and I lost my papers. I had to ship back to the moon, which was okay by me, I was tired of all the red. This was 1998 after the wars had ended. It felt like the future, even then. I found work in a maintenance facility for synthetics. It was mostly hard drive replacements and augmentations — making an arm a spatula, adding X-ray vision — handled by the med techs, and me doing clean up, squeegeeing blue fluids into drains, sorting the old parts to be recycled. I was taking a lot of daydream at the time and it was the pills that got me in touch with Harrison, who’d come back from the colonies missing a part of himself that he couldn’t get back. He was half machine now and was in the habit of stealing augmentations from the rooms with keypads. He’d show up for work his normal self and by the time we clocked out he’d have a new ear that was the wrong color skin or a display window in his palm that blinked his vitals in neon green. The two of us were the same in a lot of ways.

On my third double shift in a row, ripped to high heaven, I found Harrison sorting through the to-be-burned bins, arm buried up to the elbow in a plastic tub full of spare body parts. He was far away too, waxy-eyed, moving in stop-motion. Drugs affect non-humans differently. That’s what we called people like Harrison. Non-human. It’s all or nothing being a person, I figure, and once you get half your brain replaced by circuit boards and gizmos or whatever, you fall sharply on the side of nothing.

He was leaned over the tub, tossing out eyeballs and fingers. “There’s a piece of my brain in here somewhere.”

“How’s that now?”

When he was high, Harrison liked to swap out pieces without so much consideration. He often lost track of the important bits and I’d have to do some illegal operating, open up the back of his head and jam in an aftermarket replacement.

“I hear crawling. Do you hear crawling?” He turned from the tub; half his face was made of metal, which was not unusual, he’d looked like that since I’d known him, it was that it was always surprising, especially when he spun around starting with the flesh side facing you. “Don’t move a goddamn muscle,” he said, channeling his former self, the person who had search-and-rescued inside asteroids filled with space critters capable of slicing a guy up like deli meat.

“Look,” he said pointing past me, past the doorway and into the hall at one of the security robots, a little box on wheels that had a miniature shotgun inside and had the authority to kill if it considered you troublesome. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Security?”

“I can’t believe they’ve made it out this far.”

The security robot appraised us. I lifted my badge and it blinked a couple of red lights in a way that meant it was processing and then it let out a chime like a doorbell and rolled on down the hall.

Harrison had removed his left hand at the wrist, replaced it with a star-headed drill bit. “Jesus pal, that was something else. You’re lucky it didn’t make you.”

“The security robot?”

“You’re losing it, really, truly. That thing would have sucked your brains out like a fucking milkshake.”

“I don’t think we’re on the same page,” I told him.

“We thought we got ‘em all but, no, no, nope. And of all the places they could come to! The moon! This very fucking building! I mean, hell. I mean, I need a gun.”

• • •

I spent a little time in his head after that, rooting around looking for the problem, and maybe I erased a few memories for good measure. I didn’t find what was missing, but I snapped his hand back into place while he was out, and when I hit the reboot button behind his ear, he came back to me a little more levelheaded, which I needed, given the tranquilizers I had taken, the daydream still floating around my bloodstream. We had a job to do, or at least our job was creating the illusion of doing a job, and that was something we had to do together.

“I told you not to go in there anymore,” he said after he powered on.

“You’re not talking to me are you?” I was cleaning tools that had been used in surgery. My hands were stained with oil. “I’ve been doing this.” There was a blot on the scalpel that wouldn’t sponge off. It felt like I went at it for an hour. Our work had us mostly in the basement — the folks in charge called it sub-lunar — where time had a tendency to float around a bit.

“Do you hear crawling?” Harrison said. “When’s the last time they cleaned the ducts?”

• • •

Halfway through our shift, while I was tearing strips of fake skin off a metal thigh just removed, one of the med techs, a telepath named Steve, asked me if I could find him some daydream. It was hard to lie to people who could get inside your brain, so I said sure, how much, and he told me enough to get him through the week, which was an unhelpful answer because that’s not a quantity, and I said I could make it happen, and I’m sure he heard me thinking fuck Steve all right but he didn’t say anything about it. Probably you get used to it, hearing all the horrible things people think about you.

“Is Harrison okay?” Steve said.

Harrison was behind me, sitting on an operating table, his chest cracked open and glowing digital colors. He was digging around in there with a pair of pliers.

“He’s fine,” I said and tried not to think my real thoughts.

“You seen any suspicious activity?” Harrison said. Little sparks shot out of his chest. “Hear anything strange?” He looked up at Steve and tapped his skin-side temple with a finger.

“I saw Doctor Marshal eat a tissue. The whole thing in one bite.”

“Huh,” I said.

“He didn’t think anybody was watching but I saw.”

“Any unusual thought patterns. I’m talking serious stuff here. I’m talking violent fantasies.”

“You know as well as I do what the law has to say about sharing that stuff.”

“What’s the law say about daydream?” I said.

“Anybody thinking bug thoughts? Anybody thinking about the wholesale slaughter of the human race?” Harrison said.

“What?” Steve said.

I’m dealing with this, I thought, hoping Steve would hear it.

“Marigold got hit in the head by a bottle her husband threw. I heard her thinking about the sound it made. It was like whap.” Steve pretended getting hit in the head with a bottle.

“Marigold’s fucking husband, all right. What a huge surprise.” Harrison’s had zipped his chest back up. His human half was teary-eyed.

“You’ve met him?” I said.

“I’ve met his kind,” Harrison said.

Steve said: “This is too heavy for me. Keep quiet about me telling you.”

“I’d recommend preparing for the worst here. The invasion has likely already begun, aided by Marigold’s husband obviously.”

“Obviously,” Steve said.

Really, I thought, giving him a look that said, what the fuck, man, forgetting that he could see inside my head.

“What we need is weapons. Like heavy artillery. You wouldn’t believe how those bugs suck up rounds.” Harrison was making laser sounds, firing an invisible blaster in half-circles around the room.

Oh, Jesus, I thought.

“Don’t forget that daydream,” Steve said.

• • •

Daydream jumbles up your body, makes your brain go kaleidoscopic. It turns toes into fingers and fingers into toes. It had been hard for me to find on Mars, but here we were swimming in the stuff. We worked and lived on the light side of the moon, the side facing Earth. The dark side folks could get fucked, in my opinion. That’s where all the money was. They did their best to keep out types like Harrison and me.

We took our lunch in my buggy and bounced up and down the craters, rolled our way toward the high rises, on the way there we’d stop and meet my contact, a full synthetic named Reinhart. For lunch we had more pills, we had intergalactic visions of space gods and birds with tails made of rainbows. There was no breeze inside the containment shield, but I felt it anyway, making my hair go wavy. I was driving and the roads were mostly clear. Harrison was in the passenger seat, fully reclined and looking up at the Earth.

“Don’t make me go back,” he said.

“To Earth?” I said.

“Anywhere,” he said, “I don’t want to go anywhere ever again.”

• • •

We were in Reinhart’s place for all of thirty seconds when Harrison started in with the bug talk. His apartment was a closet, more or less. The three of us sat on stools in a triangle, our knees nearly touching.

“You see any creepy crawlies ‘round here?” Harrison said, like we’re detectives, like we were one clue away from blowing this whole thing wide open.

“I’m not sure I catch your drift,” Reinhart said. His eyes blinked green. They gave off a weak light.

Figuring I could save us some time I said, “Harrison’s theorizing that the bugs maybe found a way to repopulate. And now they can fly spaceships and now they are here on the moon.” I looked at Harrison, “That sound right?”

“Don’t forget,” Harrison said, “They have human agents in their employ!”

“Far be it for me to tell people, especially you folks made out of meat, how to go about their business, but I would highly recommend that you lower your dosage.” Reinhart’s skin was perpetually wet-looking. His hair was made of plastic.

“Sell me the drugs now, please,” I said.

Reinhart said, “Sure. Fine. Whatever.”

• • •

Before we got back on the road, I opened up Harrison’s head again. I wanted to find the broken pieces, make him okay, but when I went in, there was nothing wrong, the diagnostics came back clean, at least on the machine side. The human side was anybody’s guess. I powered him back on and pretended like nothing was wrong.

• • •

We kept driving. I slipped into dreamland for a while, was coasting on sand along the ocean, Harrison replaced by a woman I knew once, the sun was tangled in her hair and she couldn’t stop laughing, and when I came back, everything was gray and black again, and we were on the edge of containment, coming right up to the dome.

I saw two people on the outside, in a buggy like ours. They didn’t have on the protective suits, so I figured they were non-human and did not need to breathe to stay alive. We got out to walk maybe fifty yards from the dome. I had to squint to make out their shapes through the glass. It became obvious to me that they were walking toward the dome, too, and might be in need of our help. I told Harrison as much and we steeled ourselves.

When we reached the glass a voice made half of static popped out a speaker painted to look like a moon rock and told us what we already knew about attempts to leave containment leading to punishments up to and including prison time.

Harrison did his best impression of the rock voice, “Do not attempt to leave your prison or you will be put in an even smaller prison.”

We laughed at that for a moment, until we realized that the bodies on the other side were our own, just reflected. There was no one past containment. It was only the two of us.

• • •

We walked for a while after that, along the dome’s edge. I looked up at the earth occasionally, thinking back to the places I had lived, how most of them were just places really, dirt and rock and metal, and how in each of them I had spent most of my time inside of little buildings either taking or trying to find various mind-altering substances. The earth looked like a rubber ball from where I stood, it looked like I could bounce it if I wanted to. All I had to do was reach out.

After some amount of time, Harrison and I came across a pair of chapels. They were small buildings made out of glass and they glowed from inside an off-white color. That’s how I knew they were places of worship, the color of the light. I was feeling particularly reverent at the time, so I convinced Harrison that we should stop in and say a prayer. The glass walls were cloudy and I could not see through them, could not see what was happening inside.

We entered and found medical-looking tables, vats and jars filled with meats of various sizes at which were pointed industrial-sized heat lamps that buzzed and made the room feel heavy. Most of the meats were submerged in liquids or connected to long tubes that dripped out something the color of blood.

“Holy hell,” Harrison approached a jug containing a three, maybe four-pound cut. He palmed his hand to the glass, wiped away the condensation. “I was right all along.” He sounded elated. “This is where they do it. It’s where they grow us.”

“People aren’t grown. People come out of other people.” I did not know what purpose this meat might serve, but I knew that it was not men being made up from steaks.

Harrison fiddled with a glass instrument. He said, “People are grown! If it can be done inside a lady, it can be done inside a lab!”

“Agree to disagree,” I said.

“Look, this is what’s inside of you.” He pointed to a fat-laced, marbled roast squeezed inside a beaker. “You are just this, but stacked up, and man oh man I’ve seen what happens when it comes unstacked.” Something shifted in him and he started to cry. “The bugs, man. I’ve seen so many awful things. Every bad thing you can imagine, man, I’ve seen it.”

Right then a bald guy in overalls came in through the back door carrying a shotgun and said, “This is private property and I am within my rights to plug the two of you right here.”

“People shouldn’t be grown! It’s not right!” Harrison said.

“Boy, this is beef. I got all the certificates and licensures. Now do I need to repeat my previous statement, or are the two of you looking to get new holes in you?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “we ended up here by mistake.”

I pulled Harrison by the arm, and we left behind the meat garden and somehow found the buggy again.

• • •

We had picked up Steve, the telepath, and we were cruising now, the three of us. I’d sold him his drugs after skimming some off the top for myself, this was standard practice and I did not feel bad about it. Harrison was driving, which was good because I was back on Mars eating a hotdog at a 4th of July barbecue. I was riding loop-de-loops on a rollercoaster singing songs I had memorized as a teenager.

We were en route to Harrison’s apartment; he had something he needed to pick up. Our lunch break was an hour normally, and you could tack on a good seven, eight minutes if you got creative. Seemed like we had been gone for a day, 24 hours I mean. It’s what they all still used to keep track, even on Mars. Just makes things simpler.

Steve was talking about cities back on earth I’d forgotten existed.

“Kansas City. Smog. Milwaukee. Smog. Baltimore. Smog. Every city is smog now. Tell me what you think Denver is like?”

“Smog?” I said.

“Yes. Right. Exactly. Can’t see your goddamn hand in front of your face.”

“Your family alive?” said Harrison. He liked to do that, zoom in the conversation, make it so people weren’t sure if they should answer or not. I think he thought this made him seem like a more caring person than he was.

“No,” he said. I looked back at him in the cargo bed. His pupils were black holes; they were sucking in the time and the light. “They all got burned up on a colony ship. I don’t lose much sleep over it though because really, it was my grandparents that raised me.”

“How is it that you don’t hate people knowing what’s in their minds?” I asked him. Somehow it had become Ask Steve Questions Time.

“I do hate people, mostly. Yeah, when I stop to think about it, I hate just about everybody.”

“Present company excluded,” Harrison said and laughed to himself. Steven didn’t respond. I tried not to think anything.

• • •

Harrison’s place was on the 15th story of a high rise. You could see the whole light side settlement from his window. He was in the bedroom, digging something out of the closet while Steve and I looked out. Me watching the moon ghosts rising out of the surface of the planet like a mist. Their bodies were blue outlines in the shape of people. I wasn’t sure what Steve was seeing.

“You should be careful with him,” Steve said. “There are dangerous things in his mind.”

“Do you see the same things when you take it?” I said.

“Daydream? No,” Steve said, “For me it’s mostly to make the voices stop. I only hear myself when I’m on it.”

“I always see the moon ghosts,” I said.

Harrison returned with a duffel bag full of guns and a chunk of meat in his hand.

He said, “By the way, I stole this,” and hoisted up the meat.

“Why?” I said.

“I don’t know. Evidence?”

“What’s the deal here?” Steve said pointing to the bag of guns.

“A contingency,” Harrison said, “should our diplomatic efforts fail.”

Steve was gone soon after that but I don’t remember him leaving. Harrison and I were back in the buggy, him driving, with the bag of guns having replaced Steve in the cargo bed.

“Isn’t this snow something?” he asked me, but I didn’t see any snow, and I said, “Yeah, it’s beautiful.”

• • •

I woke up when the drugs had worn off, still sitting in the passenger seat of the buggy. I felt as if I was thawing out, like I’d been frozen for a generation and now the scientists had pulled my pod off the shelf and were warming up my blood. Coming down from daydream was unpleasant; it left an itching in your brain that was very hard to scratch. There was a feeling too of having been manipulated; the drug had tricked you somehow.

Harrison was smiling in a sly sort of way. He had a rifle in his lap. We were parked outside the maintenance facility where we had worked the day before. I tried to scratch the itch inside my brain and felt the metal plate on the back of my neck that I had forgotten about for a while. Daydream is capable of a lot, but the forgetting is the most important thing. The metal plate had been removed recently, I suspected, it was warm to the touch. Harrison had done some rooting around, and it was unfair of me to judge him for it, given the liberties I had taken in that department.

I too had a gun in my lap. It was a long red and black rifle. I couldn’t remember how it had gotten there.

“Do you see them?” he said looking at our old building.

I looked out too, saw the gray structure in the distance, square and low, lined with yellow windows. There was movement on the landscape, fuzzy shapes crawling toward the facility. I squinted and saw the shapes become distinct, become eight-legged and many-eyed. Their legs were like razors, and I could hear the waves of tiny clicks even from the buggy. They were swarming, thick as smog as they rolled in, emerging from the cracks and craters on the moon’s surface. Harrison was right. I should have never doubted him.

“What’s going on?” I said. “What are we doing here?”

“Who us?” He laughed and primed the pump on his rifle like I’d seen them do in movies. It made the sound I was hoping it would. “You and me, cowboy. We’re the exterminators.”


Dan Stintzi received his MFA from Johns Hopkins University and currently lives in Wisconsin with his wife and dogs.