I woke. The night sky flashed into sight, full of unfamiliar constellations. I was falling, and I didn’t know how long or far. No idea where I was, other than inside my armored Skin.
My claws – no, my Skin’s claws – gripped flesh and tendons. Something bellowed like a wounded elephant. Holy shit – it was real. I was seeing and hearing the outside world, not just my own thoughts.
My head turned. What the fuck. I held a bloody, writhing Carconite. Thing felt like a two-ton sack of flour. My Skin musta scooped out the critter’s eyeball before I’d woken – its socket looked like a pitted cherry. A blind alien couldn’t fuck me up as bad, so I guess my Skin wasn’t worried about me.
And below me, another Skin. Claws locked into the Carconite, mirroring my own. Someone else was in this battle. Two Skins and a dying corpse, plummeting together through sulfuric mists into a deadly-looking sea. My Skin couldn’t hide such intensity from me. He was too overstimulated to keep me fully drugged.
That’s when I knew my Skin had fallen in love.
I slowed my heart and lungs a bit. Couldn’t let my Skin notice I knew, or he’d knock me out again. But he sensed I was waking up, or something scared him – I went blind and deaf again. Goddamn AI. Bastard, you fucker, I thought. Hadn’t called him Sebastian for years, that fuckwad. Luckily Bastard didn’t sedate me too. Probably too busy right now.
We slammed into the water, or whatever nasty liquid the sea held. My hands jerked above my head. My claws shredded something and pulled it loose. Felt like a stomach – fastest way to kill the fuckers. My arms swung wildly against my will. Wasn’t like I was fighting; just that my Skin was hollow, and I filled its insides perfectly.
I darted sideways and dove deeper. Only sense I had was movement, and even that wasn’t in my control. Bastard used my body to power himself. He had links into my skullports and sensors embedded in my body. He was the puppet and I was the hand – but the puppet ran this show.
My legs kicked. Must be surfacing again. My arms wrapped around something. Too light for a Carconite – felt human, by the size of it. I was hugging someone, or carrying someone. Thick liquid resisted me, like I was in some soupy ocean. Bastard musta got the alien, cause I hadn’t been mindraped. Or maybe the other Skin killed it. Bastard’s new partner. His girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever you wanted to joke about. I dunno what the fuck he liked. He was a computer and apparently they needed other computers.
But more importantly, someone was inside that Skin. And that soldier might know who the fuck would rescue us from our body armor.
I could get the hell out of this Skin, away from this war. I’m no Buddhist monk – the thought excited my nervous system and gave me away. Cool liquid spurted into my veins, and then I was gone.
When I came to, I wasn’t sure how long it’d been. Hours? Bastard musta knocked me out for a while. Fuck, I had no idea what was happening. He could do whatever he wanted, of course. The Skins had wrecked our overrides. Didn’t matter how much you begged – your Skin would sedate you. He didn’t trust you any more than you trusted him. Bastard and I had a better relationship than most, but he wasn’t letting me check the clock right now. No idea why. Maybe he was nervous about his date with the other Skin.
Still deaf and blind, I focused on where I might be. I walked on a flat, slick surface. Someone held my hand. I touched something smooth through the Skin on my other hand. Felt like a metal pod, filthy with mud and slime and something foul. A pressure pod, I thought. The kind we’d brought from Earth for this war, where we could step out of our Skins for a while. Except now the pods were more like temporary zoos than military outposts.
At this point, I didn’t care. I wanted out, even for just a few minutes. I hoped Bastard would convince the other Skin to do it. My arm lifted and linked with someone else’s. Definitely an elbow, and wearing a Skin of course. Good, I thought. Buy her dinner, then head to a motel.
The next part was tricky. The Skins liked transmitting info directly to each other – getting down and dirty, as I called it – but not so much that they’d risk losing their innards. I had to feel just the right amount of excitement. Bastard would monitor my vital signs closely before he opened up. If I didn’t care, he’d keep me safe; no sense risking contact if it wouldn’t reenergize me. But if I got too excited about human contact, Bastard’d think my mind was fucked and he’d knock me out again.
Tough trick. I’d fucked it up more than I’d gotten it right, like my dating history. I didn’t dare think about escape or information or anything. All I could do was think about how much I needed another human – how goddamn lonely I was, and how I needed to touch someone like me. And hope my body’s physical reactions matched what Bastard was looking for.
We stopped walking and knelt down. Must be in the pod by now. A Skin would never rest anywhere except a sterilized pod locked with a Skinport. Now the waiting game, while Bastard analyzed his new friend and made sure it was safe to open up. I didn’t dare think anything right now, for fear he’d abort the session.
Eventually he withdrew his probes and retracted from my body. That was the worst few seconds, when Bastard was gone but I was still inside him. Like wearing a form-fitting plastic coffin. I swear I went through three lifetimes of terror, choking in my goddamn body bag. Felt like I’d nuke a whole planet for some fresh air.
Then my face-sheet peeled back. I gasped for air and blinked in the low red light. My eyes ached, overstimulated by faint lines on the walls. My nose stung with too many smells – mold, decay, something sharp that made my eyes water. My ears itched, still buried underneath my hood. The air tasted like ammonia. The Skins held a fishy stink and some tarry black substance that mighta been algae. My Skin was brown and dull gold – maybe adaptive mud camo.
I didn’t have much time. The other Skin’s face lay inches from mine, like a girlfriend sleeping in my arms. Smaller than me by a lot. The other soldier wasn’t out yet. Never could tell who was in another Skin. Three inches thick could hide a damn lot. But the Skins must know something, or think they did. Bastard bonded with some Skins and not others. Never could tell why. Had to be something more than just scanning our ID tags.
Slowly I untangled from the other Skin. I reached up and unpeeled my hood. Quiet humming attacked my oversensitive ears. The warm air was stagnant, but sometimes the room filters sent a draft past me. I could feel air moving, which felt like a memory. Goddamn weirdest sensation. I peeled my arms back, marveling how each little hair felt that breeze.
I loosened my waist and slipped the Skin down. I was unwrapping my legs when the other Skin opened. The Skin actually did hold a woman, which I hadn’t expected. She blinked and her eyes watered. I stared at her, looking for madness. At least half the soldiers I met were completely batshit. Couldn’t blame them – solitary confinement will drive a man insane. But she looked okay, just terrified.
My Skin alerted by pulsing through my calves. Bastard musta sensed my feet sweating and wanted to seal. I stayed calm and relaxed my thoughts. His grip on my ankles loosened and I was out. Carefully I peeled off the rest of my Skin and lay it down.
I crawled to my knees and started exploring. A sealed pod – probably just a waystation on this wet planet. Same as all the other pods I’d ever been in. The only door was a Skinport, like we had on the battleship. Needed a Skin-wearing human to pass through; no other way out. Supposed to be a safety feature, like an airlock. I punched the wall and muttered, “Fuck.”
I glanced at the other Skin. A girl peeled herself out. Cute blonde. My type, in other circumstances. She puked on the floor and curled into a ball, which made her less attractive. I crawled over to her.
She lifted her head. “Private Gise, Central Asian Alliance Marines.”
“Private Rugelman, Army of the Federated American Diaspora. How many times have you been out?”
“Twice. Bozhe moi, what hell is this?” She started crying.
I got pissed. Crying solved nothing. Of course, neither did punching walls, so I was no angel. “Twelve for me. Eight were nuts, three were useless, but last time I met a sarge who’d talked to a Skin tech. Now pull yourself together.”
“How do we stop them? How do we get out? I have to get out. I don’t know where I am. Where are the generals? Why don’t they save us?”
My heart sank. She was newer than I was and couldn’t help me. But at least I could help her – maybe. “No one knows. If home base reached us, the Skins aren’t saying.”
“I thought Rudolf – my Skin – I thought he was supposed to protect me.”
“He is,” I told her, looking around the room for any hint of escape. I knew it was hopeless. Even if we broke out of the pod somehow, there’d be miles of toxic terrain – and no survival unless we wore our Skins. “Your Skin’s protecting you the best way he knows how. You gotta remember what the mindrapers did to us.”
“My commander killed my squad,” she whispered.
“Yep. Men ordered to slit their own throats. Spike the airtanks with gas. Reprogram other Skins to strangle their contents. The AIs adapted to stop listening to our commands.” I stared at Bastard. He looked so fragile – just a wrinkly pile of high-tech carbon fiber and silicon sheets. Musta made sense to the Skins at the time, to override all human commands until the last mindraper was dead. A Skin’s gotta save his own man, or they’re both dead.
“But this is worse,” she protested. “I can’t control him. He goes where he wants, does what he wants – he just drags me along.”
“Skin’s doing you a favor,” I said bitterly. Those words had haunted me for two years, ever since I talked to that sarge. “Mindrapers can’t fuck with your Skin. The AI knows that, so he makes decisions for you. To protect you from yourself. Don’t you feel safe, floating naked alone in the goddamn darkness?”
“But the techs – someone should override. Someone should – ”
“Someone should do a lot of fucking things. But I dunno where they are. Neither did anyone I talked to. Maybe the mindrapers blew up Earth and we don’t even know. The Skins think the less we know, the safer we are. I guess they learned from some humans who tricked them. So here we are. For all I know, we grunts are all that’s left – and the Skins are wiping the mindrapers before dumping us into an empty fucking universe. Or maybe the Skins will never let us out. We don’t even matter anymore. Sometimes I wonder if my Skin remembers I’m inside it.”
Gise buried her face in her hands. “Shto za huy. It’s been eight years – ”
“Ten,” I corrected. “Bastard – that’s my Skin – lets me know the date sometimes, and he believes me when I want human contact. At least, he lets me get intimate like this. Some Skins won’t open at all.”
“So they do know we’re in here.”
“Don’t think so,” I said. “They just know they have to protect something inside themselves.” I sat on my ass, naked on the cold metal floor. For all I knew, Bastard would never let me out – even if the war ended. He’d adapted so perfectly to me that he’d never hold another body. Once I was out forever, he’d die.
Seems like a big hole in these self-teaching Skins. But what do I know? I’m a grunt, not a techie. And there’s no way we coulda gotten the mindrapers without our Skins. Bastard can travel through ammonia, lava, vacuum – things that’d kill my ass in seconds. Hell, he’s probably earned a medal by now, and I’m just along for the ride.
I looked at Gise. She muttered something long in Russian and grasped a non-existent necklace. I’m not religious, aside from my personal honor. But after bouncing around in Bastard for ten years, I knew there was a hell, and this was it. Maybe I was wrong about souls. If I had one inside me, floating around somewhere – how would I actually know?
Gise got to her knees and looked me in the eye. “Let’s destroy these horrible things.”
“Don’t be stupid,” I told her. “You can’t get outside without your Skin. And besides – the air’s toxic. Smell your Skin.”
“I’ll stay here. I don’t care.”
“Your Skin will run out of fuel eventually. But it won’t matter. The second I open this door, you’re dead.”
She sobbed again, and I cautiously patted her back. She leaned in and cried on my shoulder. Real skin was warm and yielding. I’d almost forgotten.
“Stay with me,” Gise said. “For God’s sake, don’t leave me!”
“Just get in your Skin. Come on. There’s gotta be a way out of these things – but it ain’t happening if we sit here on our asses.”
I picked Bastard up, shook him a few times, and wriggled my legs in. Every muscle resisted. It was the last goddamn thing I wanted to do – but there’s no fucking way I could go on without him. My Skin was my armor, my backpack, my safeguard – my jailer.
I slithered my arms into Bastard. He conformed to my body like a glove. Gise kicked her Skin towards the wall. “I’m not getting back in that thing.”
I sealed the Skin over my waist. “Don’t worry – we’ll be together. If your Skin trusts you enough to let you out, it’s a good one. Just think about staying with me, and you will. Mine’s done that for me.” Until that sarge died in my arms, I thought, but didn’t say. Hadn’t seen another face till now. Two years later.
“No. No way.”
“Don’t be stupid.” My heart raced and my Skin detected my panic. I felt Bastard spring to alertness against my body.
“I’m going to break us out of here. I’m no techie, but my dad and I built little pressure pods for fun. I can bypass the pressurizer lock and buy us a few hours. Might be long enough to signal for help, if anyone’s there.” She stood up and swiped her hand over the door panel, then wiggled her fingers with some commands. It didn’t open, but it flared gold. The breeze on my face stopped.
My heart pounded. Maybe I’d underestimated her. “Seriously? You know this shit?”
“Yeah. Give me a hand with this thing. I’ll tell you what to signal. You ever work with a pressure pod?”
For a minute, I thought about stripping my Skin off and helping her. But where would we go? Even if she broke out, we’d be stuck on an alien planet with no supplies. If we didn’t die from inhalation, we’d die of thirst. Or starvation, if we made it that long.
“Where the hell you gonna go?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she snapped, “but at least I won’t be in that thing anymore.”
“No way out from here. We’ve gotta get to a base or something.” The more I thought about it, the more sure I got. Dying here wouldn’t fix things. Bastard might decide where I went, but at least he kept me safe. He fed me, cleaned me, gave me oxygen – and kept me safe until I could escape. Whenever that might be.
“We have to try!” she cried, still waving commands at the door.
Dumbfuck. She didn’t even have a plan. I drew my hood over my scalp and grabbed my face-sheet. I said, “Look, now’s not the time to play hero. Use your head. Stay with me and we’ll figure something out.”
“Fuck you,” she said.
I pressed the sheet against my face. Probes slithered back into my skullports. Sensors attached to my body. No one would save us, but I’d be damned if I threw my life away for nothing.
“Coward!” she called, as my Skin sealed.
“Fuck off,” I muttered, where she couldn’t hear me. But as Bastard resynced, her insult stung me. I wondered – was she right? Had I just thrown away my only chance for escape? My stomach heaved. I wanted to puke. What if I’d spent so long under Bastard’s control that I couldn’t make my own choices anymore?
My body shook. Total primal fear seized me – the darkness, the endless darkness inside this Skin, like a pit I couldn’t claw out of. Buried alive forever. Sweat oozed from my pores. Bastard sensed my distress and alerted instantly. A Skin could reassess a situation in milliseconds. Nothing mattered more than keeping us alive. I needed to calm down, but I couldn’t. My Skin had taken everything from me – my free will, my pride, my courage.
I just wanted to forget everything. This war, this place, this Skin. But Bastard felt threatened, and he had to protect us – no matter the cost. Against my will, my claws unsheathed. I crouched like a werewolf and sprang, deaf and blind. My claws sank into human flesh. I screamed into my Skin. No, no NO -
Icy liquid gushed through me: sleep now, sleep…
I fell into silent night.
Vylar Kaftan is a Nebula-nominated author who has published about three dozen stories in places such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy. She has new work coming out in Asimov’s this year. She’s the founder of FOGcon, a new literary sf/f convention in the San Francisco area, and she blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net.