Stranded - Part 7
“It takes seventy-two hours,” a bored looking lab coat tells me, “for all cognitive, memory and motor functions to be mapped and routed through the neuro-interface socket implanted in your head.” The NIS is a fountain of metal spouting out my skull. Bulky and uncomfortable, the weight of it makes it difficult to keep my head up straight. “A temporary solution until the procedure is complete,” says the coat when I complain.
“And what happens when the procedure is complete?” I ask.
He gives me a look of practiced annoyance that says this will be less painful for both of us if I stop asking questions. I shut up and with a weary sigh he goes back to work.
It’s hours before I’m allowed to return to my quarters. I don’t see it until I’m almost on top of it. Lying in the middle of the floor is a gun, and underneath it, a handwritten note with just two words on it: KILL YOURSELF. I would learn, much later, that seven days is the maximum allotted time for a recruit to commit suicide and complete the procedure. Anyone who fails to do so is removed from the program permanently. They could kill you, of course. A single pill or injection would be far more efficient. Instead, they had you do it yourself. It’s a test, the first of many.
Every day starts the same. I put the gun in my mouth, and bite down hard. I stay that way until my teeth start to hurt and my fingers cramp. Then I put the gun down, get dressed and go out. “Tomorrow,” I promise myself. “Tomorrow.”
“Self-preservation is the basest of instincts. Only by subverting the will to live can you truly become immortal.” The words of an aging Sebiestor that looks as though he fought with life and lost. I’m sure he thought it profound. Old as he is, he steps aside as I move past, bowing slightly as he does so. I realize then how old I must look, wheelchair bound, head bowed by the weight of the NIS, wrapped in medical-grade mesh. I keep going, guiding my chair along the same narrow path I travel each day to and from my quarters, in a body that I can no longer control, living less than half a life and I think why not? As I near an overpass, one of many criss-crossing the wide interior of the facility, I push myself out of the chair and over the edge.
It’ll be instantaneous, I assure myself as I fall. It isn’t. I feel my bones snap on impact - jaw pulverized, shards of teeth exploding outwards, shredding tissue like so many tiny flechettes, ribs cracking and caving inwards, impaling spleen and liver and lungs – like a giant fist exploding through my torso. And through it all, the NIS watches silently, recording, remembering.
I wake up in a body that feels wrong. The arms are too long, and the feet too large. I stand- I stand! - the momentary joy of feeling my legs shift beneath me is flushed away when I see the person staring at me. It takes a moment to realize that I’m looking at myself. Where before my skin was the color of an afternoon sandstorm, it’s now pale, almost gray. I stare in disbelief through cataract white eyes. The NIS is smaller than before, not quite round and bored so deep into my skull it’s almost flush with my skin. My skin is impossibly smooth. Gone are the rough scars on my back, the hard won trophies of a long life, so too, the deep lines time had etched into my face.
I’m a 200-pound albino infant.
Naked and angry, I go looking for answers.
“A stock clone,” the coat screams, as I throw him bodily across the room. And then from behind the safety of a flashing terminal, “e-everyone gets a stock clone to-to keep costs down.” I already know this. Have already heard it from at least three other people as I punched my way up the chain of command in search of Vantus who seems to suddenly have become too busy to see me. I’m no more than I’ve always been: a grunt. A blunt instrument. They’ve gotten what they need from me. They have the technology to give me an exact replica of my original body. They’d simply chosen not to. It’s a decision that has the stink of bureaucracy all over it.
The full meaning of his words only become apparent the next day when I’m introduced to my new squad: Gastun, Cala, and Krin. Each of their faces mirrors my own; the same cadaverous skin, bald head and lifeless eyes.
We’re outside. The first time I’ve seen sun in weeks.
“You’re the jumper!” Krin is the first to speak.
“Shut up, idiot. That’s our sergeant.” Cala now, trying to rebuke Krin discretely and failing miserably.
“Sir!” Gastun mimes a stiff salute.
At least our voices are unique, I think to myself.
In the days that follow, I come to learn more about the men under my command. Like me, Krin had been a Valklear. Only in his third year, he had been one of hundreds to volunteer for Vantus’ program. He is quick-witted with an even quicker temper. I make a mental note to find out what got him into the Valklears in the first place. Gastun had worked for a Gallentean private security firm. He doesn’t speak much, and because of that people assume he’s stupid. I imagine that in his previous life he must have been a mountain of a man. Cala was... is, a woman. Fiercely patriotic, she had jumped at the chance to be among the first of the Republic’s new breed of soldier. Unlike the rest of us, she knew they would put her into a stock male body. They had explained it to her probably in the hopes that it would dissuade her from going through with it. She agreed to the procedure anyway, which, they must have figured, made her just the right kind of crazy for the job. I suppose in some way, we all were.
We train with live rounds.
“Supposed to desensitize us to the pain!” Krin hisses, as he injects biofoam sealant into the wound in his stomach. “Newsflash, assholes! A bullet hurts no matter how many times you get hit with one.”
Pain is constant. It’s in everything we touch, everything we do. It cannot be avoided, never goes away, but it can be ignored. A round catches me in the shoulder, goes clean through. Pain is temporary, it will pass I recite. Instinctively, I pivot and shoot, a red spray of mist telling me what I knew even before I pulled the trigger. But I’ve only bought us time. He’ll be back.
It’s our second live-fire drill in as many days. And this time we’re outnumbered; it’s us against three other squads. They’ve got us pinned down sixty yards out from our objective, with nothing but open land from here to there. A man-portable autocannon whirs to life over the ridge, and above the whine Gastun’s voice, “they’re trying to flank us!”
We’re running out of time.
I scan the trees. They’re out there, waiting.
“It’s a suicide run. We’ll be cut down before we set foot anywhere near that beacon,” says Cala, following my gaze. “And Krin’s in no shape to go anywhere.”
“Hell I am. I can make it.”
Behind us, gunfire, and then the hurricane-roar of the cannon abruptly stops. They’ve got Gastun.
“We have to go. NOW.”
“Are you insane?”
I ignore both of them.
“Cala, cover me.”
“Sorry, Krin,” I say, as I hoist him up by the collar and, ignoring his protests, half-carry, half-push him out into the open. A single shot zinks out of the trees and strikes him center mass. Followed by another, and then another. We keep moving, shots coming in like light rain on a tin roof.
Krin screams as the first few rounds puncture his body, but soon it’s nothing more than a wet gurgle, and before long all that remains is the soft, wet puck! of each new round tearing into his lifeless flesh.
We’re thirty yards out when desperation gets the better of them. They emerge from the trees firing and that’s when Cala starts to pick them off one-by-one. Ten. I drop Krin’s corpse and sprint the last few yards towards the beacon, the exhilaration of running, the feel of stretched muscle and the ground beneath my feet spurs me on. I breach the perimeter beams triggering the klaxon howl that signals the end of the drill. I’m covered in blood, some of it my own, but for now none of that matters. It’s over; we’ve won.
It’s only then that I turn and see the carnage wrought. Dead bodies litter the open field Krin and I just crossed; each one different, and yet all of them the same. I try not to look at their faces. Not for the first time, I wonder just what it is that I’ve gotten myself into.