X9 likes to pull the wings off butterflies. They flutter in through cracks far above, bringing with them the promise of the world outside, and perch unsuspectingly on his dull, copper skin. He pinches their bodies between his thumb and forefinger, and with the other hand tears away the wing, starting from the top and working downwards. Sometimes, it seems to X9 that they are the ones pleading, put me d-wn. But no: they squirm in silence.
He’s become proficient at removing the wings whole. At first he ruined them, delicate as they are, and those specimens he discarded. But he keeps the best, brightest wings in his chest compartment.
“I just n–d res- … You –ould g-go ahead, check the way’s clear. It’ll b- quicker–“
He wanders through the cave systems, weaving between rows of glittering, stalagmitic teeth. The electric lamp in his forehead is reaching the end of its battery life, barely more than a flickering halo in the dark, but with it he delves deeper into the caves than any before him, traversing hundreds of miles. His feeble light, sweeping to and fro, unveils clusters of sparkling crystal; an offshoot of water from an underground river; rarest of all, carvings by past explorers, as fresh as the day they were made.
On this day, as he squeezes through a low passage, his light reveals a skeleton on the ground. Not an uncommon sight—the network of caves twist in such a way as to easily disorientate a novice, the calcite formations sharp enough to shear through a guide line—but this particular skeleton catches his attention, and he hesitates. The flesh disintegrated long ago, but some clothing remains: a green jacket draped around the shoulders, a buckle and two straps twisted around the arms. It reminds him of…
X9 crouches for a closer look, the lenses of his eyes dilating with a gentle whirr. The skull’s sockets are dark, the grimace wide.
“It’s oka-y-y. The bleeding’s … stop-p-p. Go! Go on. I’ll b-be ri–t here–“
The lamp’s light becomes an intrusion, and he looks away.
X9 was not constructed for companionship, but for labour, a humanoid appliance. And yet, when he was employed as an assistant for a team of cavers, more years ago than his time counter can keep track of, one caver was kind to him: a young woman whose blue eyes had glittered in a particularly pleasing way. She kept him clean, oiled his joints, and taught him many things about the caves. Thanks to her, he knows the molecular natures of the crystals he finds, as he wanders alone; and he recognises the deepest parts of the caves where the air, polluted by sulphuric acid in the waters, is too dangerous for humans to breathe.
After the collapse that scattered their team, X9 sought her out and carried her back along the dark tunnels. Her blood clogged his joints, slowed him down. He tried to care for her, because human beings are fragile things: he found his way to pools of stagnant freshwater so that she could drink, and stored salvaged food in his chest compartment to feed her; but what she really needed was medicine, and he would never find it in time unless you leave me here.
“I’ll w–t here; I’ll be f-fine, ch–k it’s the right w-y, I’m su-sure it’s j-just up there–“
So X9 left her, bound to obey a direct order, and hurried through the labyrinth alone. It was true he was faster: he didn’t require sleep and so could move continuously. But without the encouragement of her deep, blue eyes, he became confused, and lost. He never found the exit, or her.
He looks at the skeleton now. The recording of her voice—their last moment together—has echoed throughout the cave system for many long years, has become as fundamental as the drip-drip-drips from the points of the stalactites, and the scuttling of unseen insects above his head. X9 whiles away most of his hours—whole days—letting the tape turn over his hydraulic pump, zipping it back to the parts where her voice grows tender, or cracks from pain. He’s listened to it so often, the tape’s wearing out.
“Wh-n y-you find it, c-come baaack–“
X9 unclips his chest compartment, withdraws his collection of butterfly wings, and sets to finding those that are blue.
Wings the colour of ice, of electric sparks, of cornflowers and the sky: colours he remembers from his time before the cave. X9 gently places them in the hollow sockets of the skull and leans back to see.
The wings gleam under his light. Almost real. But the longer X9 looks, the more shameful his actions seem: the empathy she inspired in him has fractured with her words. He has torn hundreds of butterfly wings—and for what purpose? They could never truly match the warmth of her eyes; and these wings—these beautiful, brittle wings—curl like dead leaves in the sockets.
“–and s-save me.”
There’s a small crack above his head, dribbling water. He reaches up to it, joints creaking, and begins to pull at a pressure past a human’s tolerance, as far as his construction will allow. His arm joints stretch and tear, revealing the twist of cables running inside, and still he pulls.
The crack gives way, but not to sky and air. A subterranean river, bursting its banks. The dribble becomes a flood, pushing him to the ground and flushing the skeleton away like debris. The water hits his exposed cables.
Before he short-circuits, he finds peace in the rivulets on his cheeks.
They feel like tears.
G. V. Anderson lives on the south coast of England and writes a little bit of everything. She’s a lover of fantasy books, lazy evenings, and spicy pizza. Right now, she ought to be working on her novel—but she’s probably asleep. Poke her awake at @luna_luminarium.