Read an Excerpt
The word races through my mind, looking for something to connect with, but it's been so long since I've heard or even thought it that I have no concept of freedom anymore. Even now it amazes me and I can't stop to think about it or I might freeze and then they'll catch me and I'll lose this wind rushing against my hot skin, this grass swishing against my legs, this burning in my lungs as I run. I can't stop, not now, not until the smoky buildings that block out the night sky are just bad memories. Not until the steel fencing that looms in the darkness is behind me, miles in the past, and the alarms that ring around me, raising the guards, are muffled screams I hear only in nightmares.
When the first shouts cry above the klaxons, I jump for the fence. Even though I know it's deactivated, I half-expect to feel its electric bite as my fingers fold through the chained links. How long will it take someone to realize the current has been cut? Long enough for me to vault over the top, I hope. With moves I've rehearsed over and over again in my mind, I climb to the top of the fence, risking a glance back at the armed guards who begin to pour from the building. The hard echoes of boot heels on concrete ring through the courtyard, and the first shots ping into the night as I reach the top of the fence. There's no wire, nothing keeping me in, nothing but the way they tried to break my spirit and drag me down.
But it was all a lie. Everything–from the moment I came here, I've been living a lie, their lie. And I almost believed it. Almost.
My hands close over the steel rod at the top of the fence and I'mfree, I'm free… Below me the guards are shouting at each other, their guns aimed at me, the shots loud around me in the night, but I'm almost free–
Pain explodes through my leg, flames licking across my thigh like a wildfire, and in a graceless heap I tumble over the top of the fence. I can't catch myself in time; my hands scrape helplessly against steel as I fall. When I hit the ground, pain shoots up my back, balls into fists behind my eyes, and punches my mind so that I can't think, can't act, can't breathe. The voice in my head tells me to stop, stand still and await directions, wait for the guards to take me back.
Back inside, back in there. My body is numb, listening to the reasonable, bland voice I've heard since they imprisoned me. The voice that tells me the lies. The voice that keeps me from being free.
The dull scrape of steel on concrete as the gate opens goads me into action. Like one of their bullets, I fling myself into the dark of night, stumbling across the tall grass, heading for the trees and underbrush beyond. I've measured the distance in my mind; I've calculated the steps. But I hadn't counted on the pain eating away at my leg, gnawing on my bones like a hungry mutt, and as I run I try to shake it free from my body. I tell myself I don't feel the blood that drenches my pants, I don't feel the ache in my head. I don't feel anything, I don't think, I don't even breathe anymore, because each breath is labored and gasped, flames that burn down my throat and sting my lungs, filling them like a dragon's bellows. I just need to get to the trees, lose myself in their growth and then I'll be free.
A word I almost forgot existed. A concept I told myself didn't apply to me. The alarms fade in the distance, and the angry shouts of the guards become lost in the rustling branches I push aside as I tumble into the woods. I let the word roll through my mind, looking for something to define it, something to cling to.
* * *
I stumble to a stop somewhere miles from the facility–I don't know how long I've been running but it's almost dawn now, the air around me starting to lighten with a rosy hue that I used to see from the window of my cell. A pinkish, bluish tinge that will burn off as the sun rises, but right now it's cottony and clings to the trees with a low fog that's hard to navigate. At least in the darkness I could sense the trees around me, I could dodge out of their way, I could open my mind and feel the forest and know where the guards were, how much distance I'd managed to put between them and me. But in this fog, time is blurred, trees jump out from odd angles, startling me into another direction, until I'm sure I'm running in circles around the same patch of wood and the sun will rise to find me frantic. The guards will catch up then–I feel them breathing down on me like hell hounds, and the thought of returning terrifies me.
No one has ever escaped before.
I don't know what they'll do to me when they find me. If they find me. I have to keep that in mind, that if, because if I can help it, I'm never going back. For five years I lived in their prison, I ate their food and wore their regulation clothes–the one-piece gray jumpsuit covers me now, even though there's a gaping hole torn at my hip, edged black with my own blood. Five years I trained to become one of them, one of the elite, one of the soldiers who kept the world in check, and I hated it. I hated every minute of it. I tried to fight back and they wouldn't let me, they stuck the voice into my head and erased everything I used to be, everything I used to know, and made me anew. Or rather, tried to make me over in their image, but they didn't know how stubborn I am. I didn't want to be created from their god. I clung to who I was, who I was meant to be.
That's how I managed to escape. Because I held onto just one thing from the time before, the time when I was free, the time I lost and don't remember and don't know if I can ever get back. I held onto my name.
I'm not this series of bars tattooed into my wrist, this universal personnel code they gave me to identify who I was to the system, these binary digits they know me as. I'm not that. I'm much more than that, than 23-854. That's nothing, just a number, just a soldier in their army they can now cross off the books because he's never coming back. He's not one of them anymore.
Because I remember my name. It's Joah.
I don't remember anything else–who I was before the culling, who I knew, what I did, where I lived. But someone, somewhere should remember that for me. They should recognize my face and recall that we were once friends before the soldiers came through to replenish their stock and picked me. I just have to find that person, ask them to remind me, to tell me who I am.
I'm Joah. I'm free. And right now that's all I've got going for me. I just hope it's enough.
* * *
By the time the sun rises high enough above the trees to blind me, I'm too tired to keep walking. The wound in my hip flares with fresh pain at each step, sending slivers stabbing up my side and into my shoulder until every movement pinches my neck and makes my vision swim. I last ate…when? Last night, evening meal, gruel I devoured because I knew I'd need my strength, but it didn't help much. I'm barely trotting anymore. The run in me is gone. If the guards found me now, there wouldn't be much of a fight. I might even go back with them willingly if they promised the anesthetic touch of a suture laser for my wound. Anything to end this pain.
But you're free.
It's a small whisper, barely audible above the whine of the voice inside my head, the endless screaming that will drive me mad if I let it. It's like a headache almost, only it's deeper than that, deep in my brain and rattling my teeth until I want to sob. I want to squeeze out my eyes and cram my ears but I know I'll still hear it because it's inside me, in the chip they put in my mind during the culling. We studied it in class, row upon row of perfect human soldiers, learning about the cullings with a disinterested glaze in our eyes because it happened to us but we don't remember anything before so it's not personal anymore. We were culled, taken from our homes, our families, our lives.
Culled, stripped of our memories and our beings, leaving only an empty shell waiting to be filled with war. Culled, trained to be the best at what we did, and what they wanted us to do was kill and cull and grow like a cancer, spread through the land until we were all that remained, not men and women, but a superior race of soldiers, a weapon of the government, a weapon for the gods.
Copyright © 2007 J. M. Snyder.