"Enbees" by Nick Olson

Wyfy had the metal man in their mind again while tilling in the field, near daybreak, most everyone else asleep aside from Wyfy’s partner Eyebee-Em. It was always the same old thoughts. Hearing first the sound he made while trapped in that chamber in Ghost Place, then seeing his servos twitch, face glitch. Then it’s the last time Wyfy saw him, in the middle of the night, and Wyfy was so tired that it all felt like a dream: waking, on a sleeping pad in an old mossy building, while the metal man, in sideways-vision, tried to make no noise as he left, squeaking still, his joints old enough for oiling, but they’d just never gotten around to it. No note, no goodbye, just leaving into pre-dawn night. It was always the same thoughts.

So it’s work, then. Breaking up dirt, clearing out rocks, checking the membrane they’ve stitched from beforetimes materials, the stuff that’s supposed to keep the glow out, cut into triangles and glued to the metal half-circle scaffolding that encloses them all, this geodesic dome that lets them stay out in the middle of the day, take in sunlight, work the fields. Live.

Eyebee-Em came in through the fields, barefoot, waterskin in their hand, careful to alternate from left to right.

“Wyfy.”

Turning and seeing, putting down the till. Smiling, wiping the sweat from their face, replacing it with dirt smear.

“You never forget your morning coffee.”

Wyfy didn’t bother with an excuse, just reached out for the waterskin.

“Careful. It’s hot.”

That first sip like all was right with the world, like it would be forever, like the glow was nothing but a minor inconvenience. Pointing up at the geodesic dome, the thin membrane of future-fabric, some of it translucent blue, some translucent green, depending on where they scavenged it from. Wyfy stifled a laugh. It was branded as future-fabric about 800 years ago. Now it was just fabric.

“Holding up fine still.”

Eyebee-Em nodded, kissed Wyfy’s shoulder.

“Get some rest once that starts aching.”

No verbal response from Wyfy, just “mmm.”

“I mean it.”

Wyfy turned to take in Eyebee-Em. Their oiled and braided beard, painted face, winged eyes. The sheen to their hair and the style of their dress that felt perpetually from another time: a time both ancient and remotely futuristic. Leaning in, adding a kiss to their lips.

“I will. Promise.”

Eyebee-Em weighed the response, nodded, went off to do another perimeter check. All it would take, as they liked to remind Wyfy daily, was one strong storm to rip open the membrane, or perhaps an incursion from the GAMI folk, and even though they hadn’t seen GAMI folk in months and the membrane had stood up to every storm so far, it’d done nothing to assuage Eyebee-Em’s worries. So they checked, and Wyfy tilled, and the people, when they woke, would work the fields, some of them, others work at storymaking, others prints and oils and paintings, and others would do their songwork, and under the dome you could smell new life rising up through earth once barren, gnawed away-at by the glow just like everything else, but under the dome life was safe to rise once again, at least for now, and Wyfy could still see when their tribe first came together, twelve years ago, Wyfy was always diligent about counting, and they were nothing more than a band of misfits and castaways dancing round a fire, trying to squeeze one more day out of life’s quickly-drying rag, and now they’re actually living, and the glow is just some light in the sky out and past their membrane, but the old dreams and nightmares still won’t go away.

The dreams and the nightmares and some of them real enough to believe that they were once memory and not just dream, like the recurring one that Wyfy has every few weeks, of a boy drawing a metal person on white membrane, or sometimes he’s retrieving scant food from a white box, or sometimes he’s watching visual records, or sometimes he’s not a boy at all but a man, fingers flying over an intact board, keys pressed and words quickly populating a lighted screen, or sometimes he’s older than any person Wyfy’s ever seen, and there are lines all over his face and silver in his hair and there are people come to see him in a great big room, and when they see him there on his higher floor, they hit their hands together over and over and over, and this is strange but also quite touching, and Wyfy’s mind sometimes seems to want to be anywhere other than right here, right now.

The people would be up soon, so it was time to put away that hazy-smoke thinking, swap it for fingers in soil, peapods collected and washed in basins, songwork in the air and movement in sunlight. But time, still, for one last remembrance before getting back to work. That time round the fire, years ago: dancing, dancing, and the changing, changing, changing of people and time, and the group’s final decision on what they’d be called, and Wyfy can’t remember now which of them said it first, but they all agreed after that they were, all of them, the non-belongers. As time passed, Non-Belongers was shortened to Enbees. So that’s who they were. Wyfy smiles at the remembrance, looks out past the hazy green-and-blue and imagines, just for a moment, the silhouette of the old metal man on the horizon. There for a second, then gone again in the blink of an eye.