Taro was almost to the Deep Belowdecks, almost free of Section RR, almost safe, when the científicos found him. Three of them sprung from a grimy hallway and tried to pin him down with rough, red-gloved hands.
“Just come with us quietly, and you won’t have to worry about a thing, cariño,” one of them said, her voice lilting and friendly.
“No! I’m not going back there!” Taro spat. “I’ll never go with you!” He spun away from them, twisting out of their grasps.
“¡Carajo!” Unbalanced, one of the male científicos tripped and hit the floor, hard.
Taro wanted to kick him in the ribs—after all, in the orfanato, bullies needed at least that much to stop hassling him—but the third científico lunged at him. Taro danced away from the outstretched red gloves, his nostrils filling with the scent of antiseptic, and found his back pressed against the cool metal wall of the corridor.
Now it was his turn to curse. All I have to do is make it to that vent. The three científicos still blocked his way to the end of the corridor. Even as he tried to weigh the best path through them, they advanced.
“Just remember, coño,” the mean científico on the left said, whacking his palm with his fist. “You coulda come with us without any trouble, not a scratch on you.” The man’s eyes flicked to the female científico. “See, I keep telling you, kindness ain’t gonna get you shit with these little huérfanos.”
The female científico laid one of her hands on his forearm. “Basta, Merlí. Inti and I can take him from here.”
The man, Merlí, began to argue with her, but Taro focused on the third científico, the one now brandishing a cruel-looking needle. The man wasn’t close enough to strike yet, but…
Now or never.
Taro thrust himself off the wall and dove past Merlí. A glancing blow clipped his left temple as the man reacted, but Taro was already shoving past him, scrambling for the grate covering the vent. I may be small for someone just a few days from their thirteenth cumpleciclos, but I’m fierce. A flash of pride ran through him, but Taro stifled it. There would be time enough to gloat if he managed to escape.
There was shouting behind him, the científicos yelling at one another, placing blame, as they chased after him, but Taro’s fingers scrabbled for the vent’s hidden latch. “C’mon, c’mon,” he urged, heart thudding in his ears, and he found it and the grate was free. Taro swung himself into the vent opening and yanked the grate back in place with a wordless, exuberant shout.
Light from the hall outside filtered through the gaps in the vent cover, but there was enough for now. Taro crawled forward, just barely fitting in the cramped duct.
Where’s the rope?
He was about to panic when his fingers found the synthetic cord. The científicos were outside now, frantically trying to loosen the grate, to catch him. Taro ignored them, seized the rope, and scooted forward until he reached the edge of the drop-off. He twisted about, turned, and then swung himself into the darkness, rappelling down as fast as he dared, ignored the stale air and the burning of his palms.
You’ll never find me in the Deep Belowdecks, hijos de puta.
Taro tried to stay calm as claustrophobia closed in, digging through the multicolored cascade of tangled wires that had to fill an entire room. He pressed forward, burrowing, praying there would be space for him to rest, to sleep,
to breathe in safety.
In, and out. In, and out. Respira, he told himself.
When he burst into open air , he swung his hand luminary about, checking for—for what, científicos? He laughed aloud at that. It had been hours, maybe even a day, since he’d last seen a living being.
He’d never delved this far into the Deep Belowdecks before, never come all the way to the very last level of El Caminante. The decking here shook constantly from the thrumming of the great ship’s engines below as it voyaged ever onward through the stars that Taro saw only during templo visits. No one in living memory had ever been down here, he was sure. Otherwise, he would have heard about it at the orfanato.
The desolate silence made the corpse all the more startling when his luminary hit it, and Taro shrieked, dropping the light. It flickered alarmingly as it hit the metal deck and rolled forward, lodging up against the muerto’s side.
He stepped back involuntarily, and tripped over the wires that still ensnared his feet. ¡Carajo!
Taro went down with a thud, and he let out a string of curses as the pain flared in his already battered hands. Disturbed by his motion, stale air currents carried the scent of dry death over him. The whole place stank of machine oil, too.
He retched, but little came up, gracias al Caminante. Then Taro’s empty stomach overcame his revulsion and growled. He winced. When did I last eat? Musta been breakfast, before the científicos came looking. Maybe a day ago?
He needed food and water.
Taro contemplated his options. He eyed the luminary, the muerto, the luminary. Retrieving his only light source had to happen. He’d need it when he left. Creepy as the mummy was, it wasn’t as scary as the científicos.
If I stay here, the científicos will never find me. If I go back to the Middle Decks, it’ll only be a matter of time. Section RR and its científicos paid handsomely for leads regarding the whereabouts of fugitive huérfanos.
At least here, I’m safe, even if I am stuck with a muerto.
Taro grimaced. He wiped a fleck of bile from his mouth with a grimy hand. This had to be better than what waited for him up in the Middle Decks. Anything was better than the científicos.
He crawled over to the luminary and flashed its failing blue-white glow over the muerto again, trembling as he took in its shriveled face.
The face is the worst part, he decided. If he just looked at the decaying grey jumpsuit or the withered limbs, he could pretend the muerto was just one of El Caminante‘s original crew members. The corpse’s skin had shriveled back from its mouth, and something had chewed away the tip of the right boot and the toes beneath. Even so, the mummy was strangely comforting, because it meant he wasn’t alone.
Some of the templos on El Caminante, the colony ship that was Taro’s world, housed the mummified remains of the Tripulación Originaria. They’d been the first, the crew who led El Caminante through its initial decades among the stars. The templo prophets claimed that the spirits of the Tripulacion Originaria were immortal and could perform milagros, but as far as Taro knew, the dead crew had never granted its favor to anyone alive.
Taro’s curiosity grew. None of the mummies in the templo looked like this. Their faces were all serene, as if they’d died in their sleep. Each morning, the sascristanos ensured the brightly-woven garments they wore remained pristine and their jeweled adornments glistened and sparkled like the stars in the High Abovedecks.
As the boy studied the muerto, a red-orange light blinked into existence where its left eye should have been. Taro froze, dropping the luminary for a second time. The falling light threw the corpse’s leather skin and matted black hair into sharp relief, reflecting off the metal plate shining through the tangled black strands—
“¿Qué…?” Taro held still, waiting to see if the corpse might do anything else, but the red-orange light remained steady. Carefully, he inched forward until he could brush back the wild mane of hair to see the metal object more clearly.
The stainless steel piece was curved to fit the muerto‘s skull, reaching from its left ear to its left cheekbone and the center of the top of its head. There were wires everywhere, too. They were like a throne behind the mummy, but the luminary flickered too much for him to follow where they led.
It’s a cyborg, Taro realized, mouth falling open. One of them.
All he could do was stare.
A real, live—vale, a real dead—cibernético.
What would the other huérfanos say when he told them? “They’re never gonna believe me when I tell them that it’s true, all of it!”
The cyborg’s eye blinked.
Too fascinated to be scared, Taro blinked back.
The eye changed color, shifting to gold.
Slowly, Taro leaned over and reclaimed the fallen luminary. “Who were you?” he asked, not expecting an answer. He panned the luminary’s dying light over the cibernético again.
The way the muerto was positioned, he couldn’t tell whether it was a girl or a boy. Its knees were pulled up to its chest and its arms hugged them, as if whomever the corpse had been was trying to keep warm when he—or she—died.
If you forget about all the wrinkles and stuff, it coulda been my age, Taro realized with a shudder. It’s the right size.
How could a cibernético have ended up all the way down here? Was it hiding from someone, like he was now? Had the muerto been a huérfano, too?
“Were you hiding from the científicos?” he asked. His gut said this had to be so. No one would die so far from any other living soul on a ship carrying so many people otherwise.
The golden eye blinked at him.
Taro stared back at the muerto. “You can understand me?”
He scooted over until his nostrils filled with the musty scent of the dried out muerto. He wasn’t tired, not yet. His escape from the científicos and the discover of the wire nest and its muerto were keeping him very much awake.
Well, if I’m not gonna sleep, might as well pass the time.
“Wanna hear a story?”
Taro grinned, stretched, and settled in. Most of the younger kids in the orfanato liked his stories, but the older ones, the ones closer to his age now, just rolled their eyes whenever he offered.
“It’s not really a story, I guess, now that I’m about to start telling it to you. Guess it’s more of an update.
“Dunno how it was when you arrived, but on El Caminante, they put all the huérfanos in Section RR until they’re either adopted or they reach their thirteenth cycle. Since we live off the charity of the whole colony ship, if we aren’t adopted by then, the científicos take us and use us in their experiments.
“One of the older chicos told me once that the científicos are trying to use modifications to make us humans more efficient, but I dunno. I hear the screams in the corridors at night. All I know is, once the científicos come for you, no one ever sees you again.”
The dead cyborg’s eye was frantically pulsing, and Taro paused. It wasn’t a very good story, not really. Maybe the muerto was already tired of him. “Want me to stop?”
The eye stopped blinking, and after a few heartbeats in its steady gaze, Taro shrugged.
“Anyway, my cumpleciclos is two days away and soon the científicos‘ll catch me. They came for me today, right after breakfast. I heard some of the minders in the orfanato talking about how the last five kids they took died already. I’m not ready to die, not yet.”
He fell silent, watching the golden cyborg eye blink erratically. What is it trying to say?
“Bet you didn’t get adopted, neither.”
“But you escaped the científicos, didn’t you? That’s why you’ve got all the metal on your head. They got you, made their changes, or tried to, and you ran.”
“I wish the Tripulación Originaria would send me some parents before it’s too late. Ain’t right, what they’re doing to us huérfanos up there. Might be for science and all, but still ain’t right.”
Taro fell silent. “That’s it. Guess there’s not much more to say right now.”
Eventually, he curled up against the cibernético, his new friend, and drifted off.
When gnawing hunger woke him several hours later, Taro knew he had to leave. He bowed to the muerto, just like they made him do in the templo. “Thanks for listening to me. Guess I won’t be seeing you again. I have to go back up where there’s food, and the científicos know it. They’ll be waiting.”
The cyborg’s eye faded to a blood-orange, then faded to black before Taro turned. As he dug his way back out of the wires, he fought against a wave of hopelessness. The tears refused to be stopped.
He was still in Section RY, barely to the kitchen there, when the científicos caught him. Taro screamed as they wrenched him off his feet and hauled him bodily all the way back to Section RR.
The minders in the orfanato chided him for his disheveled state as they strapped him onto a gurney. “It’s for your own good,” one of them said as she yanked the thick black strap tight over his chest. “Don’t worry, we’ll have you in prime condition before you go to the scientists tomorrow.”
They placed one IV in the back of each hand, both filled with nutrients, and left Taro there, strapped down so tight he couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe right.
He couldn’t stop the tears this time, either.
Won’t make a difference if I die crying anyway.
The muerto‘s face flashed before his eyes as he wept, and a thought crossed his mind. What if the muerto was a huérfano from the Tripulación Originaria who got forgotten? What if… What if it can perform milagros?
What if it was a saint looking out for the helpless huérfanos like him? Taro wished he could see the muerto, ask it this one last question, watch its eye blink affirmative.
Here goes nothing. Better than lying here crying.
“San Cibernético!” he shouted. “¡Sálvame! Please! Save me! Give me a family! Please!”
He kept screaming out his prayer to the dead cyborg of the Deep Belowdecks even after the minders came in, told him to stop fussing, plunged a needle into his neck. A blur of magenta flew toward him, and then there was only darkness.
When Taro regained consciousness, he opened his eyes and forgot to breathe. There was someone holding his wrist, but she wasn’t a minder or a red-gloved científico. Behind her stood a man, both of them dressed in the luxurious brocades worn only by the denizens of the High Abovedecks.
Reflexively, Taro yanked his wrist free. The wealthy inhabitants of the High Abovedecks never wanted anything to do with dirty huérfanos from Section RR, certainly not ones too old to adopt.
“Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Why are you—” he choked up, “—why are you here with me?”
The woman smiled warmly at him, reaching out to cup his cheek. “We’re your new parents, Taro.”
The richly-appointed room spun around him, and he fell back onto the pillows, closed his eyes. Did she… did she just say they… they adopted me?
It had to be a dream, it had to. He was still in Section RR, being modified by the científicos, and this was all a dream. I’m gonna open my eyes and it’s gonna be back to reality. Three, two, one…
They were still there, smiling at him.
“But how— when— the científicos—”
The man sat on the bed beside him, gently clasped his hand. “We received a message from Section RR that they’d found us a child. Now, we haven’t been actively looking to adopt in almost a decade—”
“We had so many false alarms, so many near-adoptions that fell through,” the woman interrupted. “I couldn’t bear to keep looking.”
The man nodded. “The message piqued our curiosity, though. We reviewed your profile, and we came down to Section RR, we found the científicos just putting you under for your modifications.”
The woman leaned forward, her face losing its smile and growing urgent. “Don’t worry, Taro, we talked to the científico in charge, and he assured us the modifications won’t hinder your social interactions.”
“What does that mean?” he asked, the dreamlike joy of his situation gone in an instant. “What did they do to me?”
“Oh, cariño, they weren’t at liberty to say. You know how secretive the científicos have to be if they’re to save humankind and help us evolve. They couldn’t even tell us who sent the message about you in the first place. You’ll have a few check-ups now and then, but the científicos can come here. You’ll never have to set foot in Section RR again.”
Taro felt bile rise, and retched. His head was pounding, everything was spinning again, and the room—
“There, there, everything’s okay, Taro,” the woman said, brushing hair back from his forehead. “Just rest.”
Taro rolled his away from her touch, looking to the window, to the unimaginably radiant, dancing starlight that streamed into the room, and passed out.
Migraines plagued Taro for weeks after his adoption, but they cleared eventually. He knew he should be focusing on his tutoring, on learning what his parents called the “true” story of El Caminante‘s history, its great travesía, and the Tripulación Originaria, but his head still hurt too much.
One day, the pain stopped. The moment Taro’s tutor dismissed him for the day, he took off. He ran to his room, found the new luminary he’d begged his father to buy, and filled his pockets with colorful glass beads his mother had planned to discard. He slung the lurid blanket he’d found in the donation heap outside the templo over his shoulders, and set out.
Taro barely needed the luminary to see when he squeezed into the vent that led to the Deep Belowdecks. A maintenance crew musta come through and added fixtures, he thought, though it struck him as odd that the bowels of the ship would receive that degree of care after being forgotten for so long.
He found the wire nest easily enough, following the gleaming handprints he’d left on the walls when he’d been here before. Musta stuck them in some kinda luminary oil. Or the new lights were just that much stronger. It’s a milagro the científicos didn’t manage to find me sooner with a trail that clear.
Once inside the wire nest, Taro turned the luminary on and set it beside the muerto—no, the santo—to better see his handiwork. He braided the beads into San Cibernético’s hair. When he finished, he draped the warm blanket around the santo with reverence.
“Thank you, San Cibernético,” he whispered as he worked. “Thank you for giving me a family. Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for not letting the científicos kill me.”
The santo‘s eye blinked at him repeatedly, its golden yellow light erratic and indecipherable.
“I wish you could talk. Do you mind if I tell the other huérfanos what you did for me?”
San Cibernético’s eye remained steady, unflickering.
Is that a yes or a no? Taro wasn’t sure. His memory of his time with the santo was blurred. Probably from the mods.
“I’ll show them where you are,” he decided. “And I’ll tell them you want to hear their stories, too. Se lo prometo, you won’t be forgotten down here.”
The santo‘s eye began blinking rapidly.
Taro grinned at his savior. “I know you’ll be able to save them, San Cibernético. One day, your milagros will save all the huérfanos from the científicos. Lo creo.“
With that, Taro picked up his luminary and left San Cibernético in its wire templo, the santo‘s eye blinking in the darkness after him.