Catherine is a soldier. Fast, strong, lethal, she is the ultimate in military technology. She's a monster in the body of an eighteen year old girl. Bred by scientists, grown in vats, indoctrinated by the government, she and her sisters will win this war, no matter the cost.
And the costs are high. Their life span is short; as they age they become unstable and they undergo a process called the spoiling. On their eighteenth birthday they are discharged. Lined up and shot like cattle.
But the truth is, Catherine and her sisters may not be strictly human, but they're not animals. They can twist their genomes and indoctrinate them to follow the principles of Faith and Death, but they can't shut off the part of them that wants more than war. Catherine may have only known death, but she dreams of life and she will get it at any cost.
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By McCarthy, T.C.
OrbitCopyright © 2012 McCarthy, T.C.
All right reserved.
You told me they’d welcome suicide,” General Urqhart said. “That once their service term expired, Germline units would march in like virgins, ready for their own sacrifice. But that’s not happening.”
His audience was silent. The general’s aides stood along the edges of a conference room while a group of scientists sat around a long table, and he stared at the holo-map that rotated overhead to show allied lines in blue, Russian in red. Nothing on the map moved; he didn’t expect it to. For now it was static, a car stuck in a ditch that they hadn’t yet figured out how to dislodge and with no sign of a tow truck. A disaster. If Urqhart didn’t retake the mines within six months, and hold them for at least three, the war would be a financial catastrophe and that was the problem with his scientists: they didn’t “get” war. Winning didn’t depend on holding territory anymore, it hinged on pulling as much metal from the ground as you could and then leaving at the right time, a strategy that depended on having every tool working. And now he had to reassign Special Forces when he needed them the most.
“We’re hemorrhaging genetics,” he continued. “The first fielded units reached the end of their term, and of those, sixty percent are going AWOL. Heading west into Europe.”
One of the scientists cleared his throat. “General, we already have reports of escaped Germline units dying before they can get too far. We just don’t see this as a crisis; safeguards are working.”
The rest of them nodded and some of the scientists even smiled, which made Urqhart furious. He pounded the table.
“Really? You don’t think there’s a problem? How do you think it looks to the public when news reports show disfigured girls in Amsterdam, Ankara, even Norfolk? What do you think the public sees? Not the military. They see you, but instead of geniuses you look like monsters. The news shows our genetic units with gangrene, their flesh rotting off, eyes milky white and blind, and most of the girls are crazy, drooling too much to even say a word. Then the public asks one question: how can we do this to human beings—to girls? People don’t see them as things, as tools; they see them as people like you and me, and now they think we’ve murdered children in the most horrific ways possible: with war and disease.”
The general paused to light his cigar, puffing until the end glowed and thick smoke coiled around his head, floating through the hologram. One of the scientists coughed. Fuck him, thought Urqhart, and he puffed a cloud in the man’s direction, wishing the scientist would die on the spot, enjoying, for a moment, the thought of drawing his pistol and firing into the man’s head to get everyone’s attention—to show this wasn’t an academic exercise.
The scientist who had spoken before nodded and folded his hands. “We think the problem lies in their psychological conditioning—while the girls are growing in the tanks. Apparently faith wasn’t the answer our psychiatrists assured us it would be.”
“Where are they now?” asked Urqhart, looking around the room. “Are there any shrinks here?”
The man shook his head. “No, General. We contracted psychiatric efforts to Hamilton Diversified, who refused to let their people attend this meeting without the company attorneys.”
“But I spoke with one of their junior psychiatrists, a bright kid named Alderson, assigned to one of the deployed observation and maintenance teams. He had an interesting insight. Alderson thinks that experience plays a greater role in the girls’ emotional development than was previously modeled, and that the problem is one of contradiction. Somehow realities at the front undermine their belief in God and the afterlife—make them doubt faith is the answer. And we don’t know why.”
The general’s anger faded. Maybe he had misjudged this particular scientist; it wasn’t the answer he wanted, wasn’t a roadmap to a solution, but it was enough to seed an idea in Urqhart’s mind, a notion that made him shiver with a sense that one day he and every man in the room would wind up in hell.
“I think I know why.” His scientists turned their attention back to him and the general sensed in them a kind of skeptical amusement. “You people are idiots. Psychiatrists. Biologists. Fucking hell,” he shouted now, his teeth almost biting through the cigar, “this is war! I can’t believe I can see the problem, and yet we pay you people millions each year to figure these things out for us. What the hell are we paying you for? I shouldn’t have to fix this.”
He paused, scanning the room slowly, enjoying the moment for what it was and noticing sweat had appeared on some of their foreheads as he pulled deeply at the cigar.
“General,” someone said, “what’s your idea?”
“None of you have been in combat. And yet here you are, psychologically programming these girls for a combat environment, using religion not to infuse a sense of faith and duty, but to make them fearless. They know that if they die in war they go straight to heaven. It’s a start, but here’s the problem: it doesn’t mesh. Down in the tunnels, once your friends start dying and the shit hits the fan, reality is a whole different thing from what these girls are being taught. Faith is a funny concept—either you have it or you don’t—and war tends to mess with whatever scrap of it you might have.”
He stubbed out the cigar on the scientists’ table, leaving a black mark on its lacquered surface. “So, for now we do nothing. I have to reassign Special Forces units to their new mission, hunting down your mistakes, but the second batch of girls, the newer models, is almost in position for our counterattack. In a few weeks we retake the mines and hold as best we can. In the meantime we wait.”
As he headed for the door, his aides holding it open, the scientist who had done most of the talking called after him.
“General, I’m lost. Wait for what?”
“The girls,” said General Urqhart. “They sense that what they’re taught about faith is bullshit, that it all came from someone who doesn’t know war, a bunch of four-eyed eggheads with no balls to speak of and even less experience. We need them to learn from someone who speaks their language, one of their own, someone who’s seen the ass-end of humanity and still reported for discharge.
“So keep the psychiatrists in the field, conducting interviews, and assign this guy Alderson to watch the most promising girls, to look out for one that seems better than the rest. We’re looking for someone who can tell the story of faith and war in a way that rings true for all the others, and we’ll record every single thing she says about it, incorporate it into our future mental conditioning packages.
“We’re waiting for a genetically engineered saint. And more than that, we need what the Greeks used to call a Psychopomp.” Before anyone could ask he gritted his teeth and said, “Look it up, assholes.”
And you will come upon a city cursed, and everything that festers in its midst will be as a disease; nothing will be worthy of pity, not insects, animals or even men.
MODERN COMBAT MANUAL JOSHUA 6:17
Live forever. The thought lingered like an annoying dog, to which I had handed a few scraps.
I felt Megan’s fingers against my skin, and smelled the paste—breathed the fumes gratefully for it reminded me that I wouldn’t have to wear my helmet. Soon, but not now. The lessons taught this, described the first symptom of spoiling: When the helmet no longer felt safe, a sign of claustrophobia. As my troop train rumbled northward, I couldn’t tell if I shook from eagerness or from the railcar’s jolting, and gave up trying to distinguish between the two possibilities. It was not an either-or day; it was a day of simultaneity.
Deliver me from myself, I prayed, and help me to accept tomorrow’s end.
Almost a hundred of my sisters filled the railcar, in a train consisting of three hundred carriages, each one packed with the same cargo. My newer sisters—replacements with childlike faces—were of lesser importance. Megan counted for everything. She smiled as she stroked my forehead, which made me so drowsy that my eyes flickered shut with a memory, the image of an atelier, of a technician brushing fingers across my cheek as he cooed from outside the tank. I liked those memories. They weren’t like the ones acquired more recently, and once upon a time everything had been that way. Sterile. Days in the atelier had been clean and warm—not like this.
“Everything was so white then,” I said, “like a lily.”
Megan nodded and kissed me. “It was closer to perfect, not a hint of filth. Do not be angry today, Catherine. It’s counterproductive. Kill with detachment, with the greater plan.”
I closed my eyes and leaned forward so Megan could work more easily, and so she wouldn’t see my smile while smearing paste on my scalp, the thin layer of green thermal block that would dry into a latexlike coating, blocking my heat. The replacements all stared.
“Do you know what to expect in Uchkuduk?” one of them asked. “It’s my first time—the first time for most of us. They mustered us a month ago from the Winchester atelier, near West Virginia. How should we prepare?”
“It’s simple,” I said. “There’s one thing they don’t teach in the atelier: Bleeznyetzi.”
Several of them leaned closer.
I nodded. “It’s Russian for twins.”
“You are an older version,” one said. “We speak multiple languages, including Russian and Kazakh, and we know the word.”
“Then you know what our forces call us—the humans.”
The train squealed around a sudden bend, pushing me further against the wall. I braced a boot against Megan, who had just fallen asleep, to keep her from slumping over.
“Bitches and sluts. The tanks taught English too, right?”
They left me alone after that. It was no surprise—we all learned the same lesson: “Watch out for defeatists, the ones near the end of their terms. Defeatism festers in those who approach the age. Ignore their voices. Learn from their actions but do not listen to their words. When you and your sisters reach eighteen, a spoiling sets in, so pray for deliverance from defeatism and you will be discharged. Honorably. Only then will you ascend to be seated at His right hand.” The replacements wouldn’t associate themselves with me for fear that I would rub off on them, the spoiling a contagion, and for some reason it made me feel warm to think I had that kind of power.
“You’re incorrigible,” I whispered to Megan. “It is not your turn for rest,” but she didn’t hear and exhaustion showed on her face while she slept, in thin lines that I hadn’t noticed before. “I’ll tell you a secret: Hatred is the only thing keeping me from spoiling, the only thing I have left, the only thing I do well.”
The armored personnel carrier’s compartment felt like a steam bath. Heat acted as a catalyst, lowering the amount of energy it took for the phantom dead to invade my mind, and I focused on my hands, thinking that concentration would keep the hallucination at bay. It was no use. The APC engine roared like a call from the past, and Megan melted away to be replaced by the dusty outskirts of Pavlodar, a bird jibbering overhead as we jumped off from the river. Five Kazakhs stood in an alley. They looked at me as if I were an anomaly, a dripping fish that had just stood up on two legs to walk from the Irtysh, and they failed to recognize the danger. Our girl named Majda moved first. She sprayed the women—who began to scream—with flechettes, her stream of needles cutting some of them in half as she laughed. Majda wouldn’t laugh for much longer. A rocket went through her, leaving only a pair of twitching legs…
Megan was shouting at me when the vision evaporated.
The APC compartment reappeared. We sat encased in a tiny ceramic cubicle, strapped into our seats and struggling to breathe alcohol-contaminated air as the vehicle idled.
“You’re spoiling,” she said. “You were laughing.”
I nodded and tongued another tranq tab—my third in the last hour.
“It’s an insanity,” Megan continued, “I worry. The spoiling seems to be worse in you than in any other and someone will report it. One of the new girls.”
“It doesn’t matter. Soon we will kill again and then it will be as if nothing was ever wrong, as if destruction was a meal, maybe toast and honey.”
The turbine for the plasma cannon buzzed throughout the vehicle, vibrating the twenty cubicles like ours along each side, and three large ones down the vehicle’s spine. We had two ways out. The normal way, a tiny hatch in the floor where we would come out underneath and roll from between the APC’s huge wheels, and an escape hatch in the roof where we could pop out in an emergency. It wouldn’t be long before everything stopped and time would dilate with excitement, with the freedom of movement and a sudden breakout into the open where one could find targets among men.
The turbines went quiet and I saw a tear on Megan’s cheek.
“It doesn’t matter,” I explained, “not because I don’t care about you. I do. It doesn’t matter because we’re dead anyway tomorrow. And I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want to be discharged.”
“You speak like them, like the nonbred.”
I shook my head, ignoring the insult, and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to live past the age? Maybe the spoiling goes away. Fades. I have more killing to do, and they will rob me of it at eighteen.”
Megan shook her head. She turned and I saw from the movement of her neck that she had begun sobbing, which made me feel even worse because my actions ruined the moment. This was to have been a sacred time. It was said that in quiet seconds during battle, when the firing paused as it sometimes did without explanation, one heard His voice in the wind or in the silence of the suit, His hand on your heart to let you know that you were a sacred thing among the corrupt. So the time before an engagement was to be used for reflection, to prepare for glory in an hour of meditation that climaxed with a flash of anticipation, of wanting to prove one’s worthiness. But words ruined everything.
There were plans and strategies, mapped out in advance by semiaware computers and human generals to calculate just how far we could go before our systems reached their limit. It was a ritual beyond us—the way our leaders communicated with God and channeled His will. Nobody gave us the details. For the past two years neither Megan nor I knew why the war existed, except what we had caught in passing during interactions with men, with human forces, the nonbred. But those were glimpses. They weren’t enough to answer all the questions, and soon we stopped asking because it was enough to know that we fought Russian men, and we prayed that God would make the war last forever. A feeling of satisfaction filled me as I thought about it, as if knowing that God was a part of the plan was enough, something that made us invincible because He trusted us to cleanse this part of the world, to allow a Lily like Megan to exercise her will.
We would move out soon. Far below us, the advance shock wave of our sisters was already attacking, underground, pushing into Russian tunnel positions and killing as many as they could before we followed with the main force—a mixed army of humans and my sisters, exposed aboveground for the greater glory. Our attack would make Megan feel better, I was certain. Waiting never helped, but war?
War made us feel fifteen again.
They played it over the speakers when we were born at fifteen-equivalent—the hymn, a prayer known only by the faithful, our first lesson and a call to the faithful:
“This is my Maxwell. It was invented over a century before I was born but this one is new, this one is mine. The barrel of my Maxwell consists of an alloy tube, encased by ring after ring of superconducting magnets. I am shielded from the flux by ceramic and alloy barrel wraps, which join to the fuel cell, the fuel cell to the stock. My Maxwell Carbine has no kick, my carbine has a flinch. It is my friend, my mother. My carbine propels its children, the flechettes, down its length, rapidly accelerating them to speeds ranging from subsonic to hypersonic. It depends on what I choose.
“My carbine is an instrument of God. I am an instrument of God. Unlike ancient firearms, the flechettes have no integral chemical propellant and are therefore tiny, allowing me to fill a shoulder hopper with almost ten thousand at a time. Ten thousand chances to kill. My flechettes are messengers of God. My flechettes are killers. The material and shape of my killers makes them superior armor penetrators. But my killers are not perfect. I am not perfect. My killers are too small to work alone and must function as a family. But I shall not worry. My Maxwell will fire fifty flechettes per second, and fifty is a family. With my Maxwell I can liberate a man of his head or limbs. With my Maxwell I will kill until there is nothing left alive.
“With my Maxwell, I am perfect.”
It was then, at fifteen, when Megan and I met our first humans. Until that point the technicians kept us in atelier tanks—alive and conscious, fed information and nutrients through a series of cables and tubes. The tanks gave us freedom of motion so we could put movement to combat scenarios played out in our heads, lending our muscles the same memories fed to our brains. Fifteen-equivalent was our birthday, when we became the biological equal to a fifteen-year-old human and slid from the growth tanks to feel cold air bring goose bumps and, along with them, a sense that the world was both a hostile and a promising place, full of danger but also the opportunity for redemption.
First steps were awkward. Megan had stumbled when trying to stand and crashed into me, sending us both to the cold floor in a heap. We giggled. I’m Megan, she had said, and I told her my name, after which we looked into a mirror and I thought, She looks just like me—skinny girls, with leg and arm muscles that flexed like pistons under gravity, and which I knew could be used to kill the human technicians around us in hundreds of different ways. They had hair. Our heads had been shaved perfectly smooth and Megan and I sat there, on the floor, rubbing the tops of them and tracing our fingers over the scabs where only a few days before, cables had penetrated, and the thought occurred to me that if I killed one of the humans we could take his hair, to glue it onto our heads just to feel what it was like. But the technicians were kind. They helped us both up, guiding us to the dressing area where they gave us our first uniforms, orange and bright enough that their color glowed under fluorescent lights; and the sounds—unmuffled by the gallons of thick fluid that normally surrounded us in the tanks—were enough to make me dizzy. I vomited on the floor.
A new voice spoke through the speakers while we organized. “Glory unto the faithful. On this, the day of your birth, a choir of angels sings your praise in heaven, telling God that he should watch for the time when you join him, to sit at His side after serving mankind. This you shall do, in honor of your creators.
“It is said that ‘all the earth shall be devoured in fire. For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, which they will serve my Masters with one accord. From beyond the rivers the daughters of His dispersed ones shall bring offering. On that day I will not be ashamed for any of my deeds in which I transgressed against God; for then he will take away from our midst those who spoiled, and they shall no longer be haughty in His holy mountain. He will leave in our midst a meek and humble people, and we shall trust in the word of our Creators.’
“Rejoice, for you are His daughters and ours, a holy Germline, Germline-one-A, and you will bring to Him eternal glory through death and with sacrifice. So sayeth the Modern Combat Manual.”
While the voice read passage after passage, Megan helped me into my orange jumpsuit and when we looked at each other I knew she was the one.
It didn’t matter now, in Kazakhstan, that those memories were old; it was the same look I gave her on that afternoon, when we slid from the bottom hatch of our compartment and stretched outside the APC under a dim sun. We smiled. I didn’t need to say it to her: it was an amazing day, cold and bright like on the day we were born, and we would be together when the enemy turned to face us. My hatred burned with an intensity it hadn’t mustered since the day before and both legs trembled, wanting to move out regardless of whether or not the others were ready.
Our APCs had stopped across the border, west of Keriz and inside Kazakhstan where vehicles spread across the countryside. To our north, contrails marked the passage of autonomous fighters, semiaware drones that calculated probabilities in less than a second, twisting through the sky in patterns like braided white ropes. Russian ground-attack craft tried to cross south, the APC’s making an attractive target as they stopped in the open to assemble, but so far our fighters had kept the aircraft away. Every once in a while you saw a black streamer fall, followed by a cloud of fire and then a distant thud.
“It is here,” said Megan, “in the air.”
I nodded. “Death and faith.”
“I will kill all I see.”
“And we will bathe in the blood of mankind, washing ourselves of their sins.”
She said, “Let it go. Detach.”
But I didn’t answer.
You can tell a battlefield from its smell. Burned metal tinged with rot, acrid enough so that it felt like the tissue in your nose would singe, foreign enough that it made you clench fists with the impatience to wade in. Only about half of us remained. Many of my sisters—the ones who had led the shock assault earlier that day, underground—had partially melted armor, bubbled from plasma attacks. Several were absent an arm or a hand. Despite the wounds, they would feel nothing because the nerves would have shut down, and blood vessels had sealed themselves to prevent further fluid loss. A plug of ceramic—locked in place with quick paste—would seal the suit breach and maintain thermal integrity. I felt proud. This was my unit, and none of us had spoiled to the point of being combat ineffective, so that our dead now looked down from heaven with the same sense of pride. Our wounded were the new girls, the replacements, and before they helmeted you saw that their faces still glowed, but now it wasn’t the glow of nervous expectation; it was the glow from having killed, of knowing.
We began our advance, following on foot behind APCs that moved at jogging pace, sending sheets of mud and snow into the air and coating our suits in a dripping mess. Our feet made sucking sounds as we plodded. On either side of us, a full Division of Foreign Legion and Marines advanced at our flanks. Human.
There were no words to describe it, no way to understand except through experience. Trudging. Fighting against the mud with every step so that within five minutes your muscles screamed, and then having to continue like that for thirty minutes, an hour, two. I was near the edge of our formation, close to a group of Marines. You could see some of them, their armor almost new, as they twitched with every explosion or dropped to the earth at the first hint of tracer-flechettes. Many of them began stumbling and barely lifted themselves, falling behind as we continued. Nobody cared. The exhaustion got so thick, so fast, that it was all anyone could do to keep one’s eyes open, let alone pull a straggler from the mud. I could have blocked the pain, willed it away the same way I twitched a finger, but the sensations reminded me that I hadn’t been discharged yet and so they became comforting things, reminders there was more killing. Pain was familiar now. Welcome.
At times a walking plasma barrage moved ahead of us so that we moved faster, jogging over a crust of hard glass. It was a Godsend, and I heard Megan whisper her thanks. We spent the whole first day of the advance like that, walking then jogging, and soon I remembered that distances in Kazakhstan killed resolve almost as easily as the spoil. A tree on the horizon might look close. But as you walked through the day, it barely changed position, and was enough to drive you mad with the feeling that you would never reach it.
Then, at last, contact. Close to sundown, Megan and I found ourselves in a hole with three Marines. One of them screamed as Russian grenades cracked on every side, sending sprays of thermal gel over our position to hiss and smoke as the droplets melted whatever they touched. The other two men were hardly better. Both huddled at the bottom of the crater, screaming to us that we had encountered the outermost positions of a Russian defensive line.
I kicked one. “How can you aim from there?”
“Get up and fight,” said Megan, but the men cursed at her.
She grabbed the grenade launcher from one and peered over the lip of the hole. I fell beside her. A hundred yards away, behind a small rise, tiny flashes marked the position of a Russian grenadier whose helmet and shoulders the low sun outlined, and we had to duck when a spray of white tracer-flechettes kicked up the dirt around us. Megan dialed in the range. At the same moment she popped back up and fired, I sprinted from the hole, doing my best to zigzag through the mud toward the Russian position, not able to think through the haze of fatigue.
We continued like that for a few minutes. I would drop to the ground when she stopped firing, until her grenades started detonating ahead of me again—my sign to get up, keep going. Finally, I got close. I waited for her to stop and almost immediately saw the shape of a Russian behind the edge of a fighting position. His helmet was black, with paired, round, blue vision ports instead of a single slit like ours, and a series of cables connected the outside of the helmet to a power pack, so that they draped over the man’s shoulders like thick strands of hair. You almost forgot why you were there, transfixed by the realization that he was so close, his proximity releasing an influx of hatred that made you want to scream. The man shimmered in the light. I saw all of them then, the ones who jeered at us as we waited for the cars in the railyard, who pelted us with empty food packs, but especially the ones in white lab coats, always there when we returned from the front, eager to punch data into their tablets as they forced us to answer questions. This was a man. It was rare to get this close, and it made you want to savor the moment, to get even closer and rip his helmet off so you could watch his expression change with death.
I slipped a grenade from my harness, hit the button, and waited for its detonation before rolling into the hole to push aside the dead Russians. “Check fire, Megan. Clear.”
A set of three shafts led straight down in the center of the hole, the only way the Russians could have survived our plasma barrages. I tossed in grenades to make sure the shafts were empty, and then let the exhaustion wash over in a warm tide, numbing my muscles and nearly sending me to sleep. The sun set at that very moment and according to our locators we had made it to a point west of Karatobe. They were in Karatobe. The Russians had retreated there to establish a major defensive line on either side of the Syr Darya River, with Shymkent well to the south.
Tomorrow, I thought with a shiver. Tomorrow is our day.
Megan flopped down next to me and yanked off her helmet. She laughed. I removed mine before kissing her, after which we lay against the dirt wall of the hole and stared up—the sky turning an unbelievable reddish orange as the sun’s light faded—waiting for the stars, something we never got tired of seeing. Megan especially loved stars, and they always brought wonder to her face. Soon I would dream. Sleep was a thing feared, something that resurrected buried memories and then twisted them into nightmares, a time to avoid. But you couldn’t evade sleep any more than you could avoid the men in white coats.
“I count seconds as if they were hours,” I said to him, “minutes like days.”
“What is there to explain?”
A man in a white coat sat on the other side of the table. He punched his computer screen with a shaking finger, and every once in a while glanced at me, then to the side to make sure the better men were still there, still keeping him safe. From me. The room shifted and my head hurt, a stabbing pain that shot through my spine and blurred my vision.
“I mean let’s go further, and I’d like it if you’d elaborate on why you count seconds as if they were hours.”
“Sava, nie toma Meg. Sava.”
“What language is that?” he asked.
“What you just said. I didn’t follow, was that Serbian?”
I shook my head. The better men stared at me, not even blinking, and looked as though they’d be more of a challenge than a typical soldier; they wore Special Forces desert hats in a way that spoke of ease. Familiarity. The stocks on their carbines were worn, and when my focus returned I counted the screws on their sights, custom ones, but each spaced a little differently from the other’s, maybe due to one of them experiencing the onset of near-sightedness or ocular injury.
“It’s not Serbian, is it?” He continued. “Is that the language of your sisters? The secret language, tongue of the bred?”
I stared at him and said nothing.
“I thought they cured all of you, in training. Thought that the punishments were so severe that even nerve override wouldn’t work, that Germline units knew better than to keep speaking that crap.” He smiled as he punched something else into his tablet. Data. This one had never seen.
“You’re not the usual one we meet after battle,” I said, “not the white coat I’m used to. Bentley. I think that was his name.”
He wiped his forehead with an arm. “Insurgents killed Bentley on his way in from Bandar Abbas. I’m Alderson, new to the team from MIT, and here to replace him… Catherine, is it? Germline-One-A, Unit oh-five-seven-triple-one?” When I nodded, he tapped his foot on the floor. “Why do seconds seem like hours?”
“We don’t have enough time.” It should have been obvious, and a feeling of pity took the edge off my hatred, the realization that this one would never know God. “He put us on this Earth to serve. Death and Faith. Anyone who doesn’t believe this, anyone like you, will never cross over into heaven. It is in the manual for all the faithful to study. You should taste a war, Alderson, or at least read about one.”
“What do you mean when you say there isn’t enough time? To live, you mean? You want to live longer, to become a…” He stopped and turned, looking at one of the soldiers. “What is it you call them, Sergeant, the ones who run, who want to live?”
“Satos,” one of them said.
“That’s it. Sato. You want to become a sato?”
I shook my head. “I want more time to kill.”
He punched at the tablet more quickly now, leaning over the desk until I could have grabbed his throat. “Kill the enemy, you mean.”
Megan shook me awake, ripping me from my dream so that I found myself in Kazakhstan again, in the hole, wanting to finish what I was about to say. But the white coat had vanished. In the darkness light amplification made everything green and I waited for Megan to inspect my armor, to finish the routine. She checked for leaks. Our armor was designed the same way as human armor, sealed tight except for air intakes and exhaust, so that minimal thermal emissions would escape and no chemical or biological agents could penetrate. I checked my heads-up display, made sure that I had enough power and that the chill can, which would cool my exhaust to ambient temperatures, functioned.
“Clear,” said Megan.
“The language,” I explained. “I remembered it in a dream.”
She laughed and touched a gauntlet to the side of my head, and I imagined a smile on her face.
“You are different than the rest. Better. I had forgotten it, and don’t know if I could remember much, not when we’re this old.”
But by then I was fully awake and the dream had begun to unravel, clarity taking hold and convincing the conscious part of my mind that nothing had happened while I slept. It had all dissolved.
“I have trouble remembering everything these days. Contact?” I asked.
“No. I patrolled for four hours. It’s your turn, and I uploaded the path into your computer. Do you have enough of a charge in your fuel cells?”
“Yes.” I flicked the forearm button and watched as my suit transformed, taking on the same colors and texture as my surroundings to the point where I couldn’t see my own hand unless I moved it, and only then as a hint, a distortion in the air. I crawled slowly over the hole’s edge and moved out.
There were four more hours until sunrise.
By the next morning, ten of us occupied the hole, Megan, me, and eight Marines. The ground shook with the explosions of a plasma barrage, as shells rained down over enemy positions a few kilometers away. I peered over the edge and watched. The clouds of gas—born from magnetic containment shells—expanded in brightly colored bubbles that hypnotized, their edges melting into hot tendrils that disappeared almost instantly. We’d move out soon. I felt it. The plasma wouldn’t kill many Russians but it would keep their heads down and eventually we would jog across the open fields, behind the APCs, advancing toward the explosions to get as close as we could before the barrage ended. I lowered my helmet and slid the locking ring shut with a hiss.
It was almost unbearable. The ceramic threatened to collapse onto my face, to close over my mouth and nose in a suffocating mass and—this isn’t real, I told myself, this is the spoiling. My helmet is fine… I tongued a tranq tab and shook my arms. While I waited for the tablet to dissolve, orders crawled across my heads-up display and crackled over the headset: Prepare for jump off. Move bearing zero-nine-zero, neutralize all enemy positions and hold on east side of Syr Darya River. Jump at code sign Bravo.
Megan flicked her safety off.
“You guys hear about Shymkent?” one of the Marines asked.
Another one answered, “Messed up.”
“Shymkent?” asked Megan.
At first, the Marines didn’t say anything, and although helmets hid their expressions I guessed what their faces looked like—what these men felt. Revulsion. Do we have to talk to these things? They were all men in white coats.
“Russian genetics pulled out of Shymkent last night, took positions in front of us to reinforce against you guys. Thanks.”
“Then we shall destroy them all,” I said. “This is a good thing. They will be a challenge, a means to prove your faith.”
“Jee-zus,” the Marine said. “Whacked-out G’s.”
It wouldn’t change our plans. Unless the reinforcement had been enough of a concern to change the overall strategy, we would attack the same way we always did, regardless of opposition. I glanced at Megan and saw her cradling her left arm with a free hand, shaking it up and down to get the blood flowing, and bringing back to me a flood of memories.
On our first exercise outside the atelier, Megan had broken her arm. A concussion training grenade had landed in our position and rolled close to her side before it blew, shattering her upper arm in ten places because we hadn’t been wearing full armor. As soon as she tied it off with her belt, we rose to advance through the forest.
A bot popped from the ground. I raised my carbine and fired, the weapon dialed down to the point where the flechettes barely had enough energy to leave the barrel, and a few of them bounced off the thing’s metallic skin, enough to alert it that it had been hit and should deactivate—but not before it lobbed several grenades in our direction. When one of them detonated behind us, someone screamed.
Megan and I crawled and then stood when we realized the exercise was over, so that we walked a few meters through tangled brush into the clearing from where the noise had come. The girl screamed again. A grenade had detonated on her back, carving out a crater so that we saw portions of her spine, but by the time we got to her side, she had silenced the pain and smiled at us.
“My name is Sarah,” she said. “I think my back is broken, paralyzed.”
“Does it hurt?” asked Megan.
“Not anymore. I am so lucky—to be the first from our unit.”
Megan nodded. She dialed up her carbine’s muzzle velocity, aimed, and fired into Sarah’s head. A few minutes later we had reached a nondescript hill, our objective, and waited for our trainers to arrive, but the image of Sarah wouldn’t leave me. It should have left me.
“What do you think it’s like to die?” I asked Megan. She leaned against my back so that we wouldn’t have to lie on the ground.
“We have simulated it. You know what it is like, an instant of pain and then darkness.”
“Not the actual moment,” I explained. “I mean afterward. On the other side.”
Megan thought for a moment. “It is glory.”
“Yes,” I said, “of course it is glory, but what happens? How do we get to His side, what is He like?”
“These are questions for our mothers, not questions for us,” Megan said angrily. “Leave it alone.”
I thought it was odd—to have remembered that moment while we waited in the Kazakh steppes for our attack. But it struck me. Megan hadn’t answered my question back then because she couldn’t. Who could? And since we hadn’t simulated the other sided of death, I began to wonder. We simulated everything else, over and over; why not the aftermath of death? How would we know how to reach His side; would there be enemies between us and Him, trying to keep us from reaching His position? Then I thought, Maybe we didn’t simulate it because nobody knows what happens after death, not even men. I didn’t know how to process the possibilities, and in the end put aside the thought because it made me uneasy.
More waiting. After ten minutes I suspected something was wrong and after half an hour the Marines got jittery, talking to one another in whispers. The sun peeked over the horizon and began melting the ice that had formed overnight, turning the fields ahead of us from a semisolid mass into a sea of mud. Then we heard it. Incoming plasma rounds, when they came close, sounded like someone ripping open the sky, and Megan and I shouted at the same time.
“Into the holes!”
We didn’t have time to use the hand holds. I slid into the closest shaft feet first, and fell almost thirty feet straight down, pressing my knees against each concrete wall so that the ceramic of my armor would slow me. The shaft was tight, with barely enough room for my shoulders, and Megan came down on top, her weight pushing down until my legs locked against the walls. I braced myself and waited for the Marines to land on top of her, but it didn’t happen.
Something made me laugh. The temperature on my heads-up climbed and the low oxygen warning light blinked on, but the sensation of being in the middle of it all, of the realization that in a moment it could all be over, brought happiness. For the moment it didn’t matter that we might not know what it was like to die—to transit into His house. A plasma strike would be quick and I’d find out for sure. For myself. The rounds exploding overhead ripped the air from our hole so that as I waited for my emergency oxygen valve to open, it felt as though I would suffocate, and I prayed for an honorable exit, but soon the small tank hissed and filled my suit with air.
The booming of plasma sent me into a place of semi-awareness, where the walls melted to be replaced by the faces of my sisters, writhing in agony next to me as they burned and fused and I cursed them for looking so scared, which made me laugh all the harder until I wanted to choke them. But they stayed out of reach. The blasts vibrated everything to the point where my jaw refused to clench no matter how hard I tried, teeth rattling against each other as if shivering. The temperature inched higher. Our indicator readouts had been designed to shift from blue, to green, to yellow, and then to red—when the heat was within fifty degrees of damaging armor systems—and mine had gone red some time ago, making me wonder how Megan was doing since she was that much closer to the barrage, closer to glory.
I realized it stopped when all of a sudden I heard my own laughter, echoing inside the helmet. Megan began climbing. We made it to the top and stepped onto a sheet of glass, the ground crunching under our feet as clouds of steam shot from the cracks, and a pair of Marines climbed from the shaft next to us. The rest of them were gone, transformed into black lumps. Our headsets crackled to life and a single word blared over the net three times.
“Zebra, zebra, zebra.”
Megan and I glanced at each other. Around us lay the ruined hulks of APCs, most of the closest ones cracked open and sending columns of smoke skyward as they burned. We slung our carbines and motioned for the remaining Marines to follow as we climbed from one crater to the next, moving westward as quickly as we could, in retreat. The hair on my neck stood up, skin tingling.
The Russians were on their way. You couldn’t see them yet, or hear them, but you felt them and knew it had gone horribly wrong because “zebra” was a retreat code.
The route brought us to the rally point outside Keriz, where we sat, and where a flood of memories entered my mind along with exhaustion.
Our first combat advisor had a kind of look, like his soul had already left his body, an empty shell similar to the orphans I had seen in Tashkent on my push up from Iran, children whom the world had changed so they looked only at their feet. He sensed things. I never forgot the first time the man stared at me, with eyes that had stopped recognizing anything of this world, and if anyone knew what happened after death, I realized later, it would have been him. I should have asked. Among all men, this one we considered a brother, someone who understood what it meant to kill and how to do it, not a white coat, but a guide who had been tasked to show us the way north because he spoke Russian. Sisters that came after us spoke a hundred languages and had local geography vision-imprinted in their memories, but we didn’t. We had only this broken human. On his last day of life, we all sat in the back of an APC, in one of the large main compartments surrounded by flechette hoppers and boxes of grenade magazines, waiting for the orders to hit Shymkent prior to pushing northward.
“You have been in more than one war?” someone asked him. When he nodded, Megan and I scooted forward on our seats. “We have not. This is our first one, I mean. It is good that you will be with us.”
He leaned against a bulkhead and looked at the ceiling. “Why?”
“Because prior to this,” said Megan, “in training, we only killed convicts and the insane. After the landing in Bandar, on the push north from Iran, they all ran away and it didn’t feel like combat, like it wasn’t a real war; those men almost never returned fire.”
“That’s great,” he said. “I’m so glad that you at least have experience with killing the mentally ill.”
“I agree,” I said. “It was an excellent training method.”
When the APC ground to a halt, we slid from the rear hatch and followed him into ruins, a playground of tactical possibilities. The suburbs of Shymkent had been leveled. Fields of concrete rubble lay in a jagged landscape that seemed impassable but to us the area spoke of prospects, and Megan and I crouched as we followed the man through the wreckage, tracing the movement of our sisters on either side. Thousands of us filtered silently through the city.
Our advisor held up his hand and the word passed instantly to hold in place, drop to the ground. It went wrong a moment later. The Russians had placed plasma mines in the rubble, waiting for us to get within range, and when the man turned to run, explosions lit up the fields, blinded me for a split-second before my goggles frosted over. A pocket in the rubble protected Megan and me from the blast, but when it ended we heard nothing. I peered out. The blackened hulks of our sisters littered the concrete, and the ones closest to the plasma mine had fused to the soil, but there was no sign of our advisor. He had vaporized. Megan and I moved forward with the remaining survivors and attacked. I leapt into an enemy hole and flechetted the closest Russians, grabbing one who tried to run so that his helmet ring cracked when I snapped his neck. I twisted it further. Megan laughed with me and we pushed forward.
I didn’t need tranq tabs back then. But after that initial battle, when it was over and we all sat amidst the concrete blocks to eat, I cried. It seemed strange. There was no sadness, just some need to release tears as if my eyes had become a kind of safety valve for an unfamiliar pressure in my chest.
And while we sat there now, near Keriz after our retreat, I saw myself in them—in the new ones, the replacements who had just survived their first battles only to run. Megan saw it too. Some of them took off their helmets, then their vision hoods with goggles, and showed their faces, which just a day ago had looked fresh but which now showed dirt and burn marks, their eyes empty so that you would have thought they had been fashioned from black glass, lifeless.
“Where is the Second Division?” Megan asked. “Our reinforcements?”
I shook my head. She didn’t really expect an answer, but I gave one anyway. “I don’t know. I worry more about what will happen next; the Russians might come before we can load into our own vehicles.”
You still felt the Russians, out there. The horizon to our east had turned a reddish brown with the exhaust and dust from their vehicles, and I had taken off my helmet to feel the mild chill of a windy spring morning and to hear the enemy’s vehicles if they got close enough. We had run all the way to the rally point. At least a hundred of our APCs were moving in from the west, reserve vehicles from Keriz that the Marines and Foreign Legion had sent to pull us back to a defensive line, and now it was a race to see who would get to us first—our forces or theirs.
Ten minutes later, we heard our rescue vehicles. It took some time, but eventually they sped into our position and began the process of loading the wounded. I put on my helmet. Megan looked at me as though it were odd, which it was; there was no need for a helmet inside the APC, but I didn’t want her to see me cry or suspect what I already knew—that I was crumbling faster than anyone realized.
I cried because another thought had occurred to me: I didn’t want to disappear like our first advisor had. As if he never existed.
Even the bouncing motion of the APC—my head slapping against the ceramic bulkhead—couldn’t pull me from the hallucination. The real world didn’t exist. It took Megan some time to reach me, and I didn’t notice her efforts until she had removed my helmet and poured a packet of water over my head.
“Come back,” she said, crying.
I stroked her cheek. “I’m here.”
“Where do you go?”
“Everywhere,” I said. “And nowhere. Sometimes it’s like being in darkness until something brings me back. Other times I walk through our past, unable to change anything.”
Megan grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Please stay with me. We still have today.”
“Death and faith.”
We had to stop talking when the whine of the turbines rose. The vehicle angled upward, climbing a small slope. If you hadn’t been in an APC before, it would make you wonder how long it would take to suffocate, which, in turn, opened the door to hundreds of additional death thoughts. Alcohol fumes made it difficult to breathe. Behind my head the motors of the plasma turret screamed as it rotated back and forth, and I felt the throb of the compact fusion reactor that took up the center of the vehicle, its sole purpose to generate hot gas so it would be a race if they hit us. When enemy rockets struck an APC’s reactor, a bloom of plasma might melt the passenger compartments before its energy dissipated, or the rocket might penetrate into troop sections, where its overpressure and flames combined to liquefy the occupants.
Those kinds of thoughts had never been a concern. But as we sat there, listening to the vehicle communications, I began to shake.
“Contact,” a voice said. “Enemy APC columns, moving toward Keriz, over three thousand vehicles.”
Megan and I glanced at each other and shifted closer, our hips touching.
“New contacts, airborne—bearing oh-one-five, oh-twenty three, and oh-five-two. Speed, six hundred. Distance, three hundred klicks. Forty thousand targets. Computer solution in ten seconds.”
“Roger that,” another voice responded, “Proceed to Papa-Golf-three-four-nine-two-four-one, offload and hold. Orders being distributed.”
Megan and I checked the maps. Tamdybulak. We waited, until a few seconds later the orders crawled in green letters across our goggles’ heads-up displays: Reform at Tamdybulak and prepare defenses. I couldn’t swallow. The anticipation became palpable, an electricity that ran from my feet to my scalp, cold with the certainty of war and the equal certainty that there would be nothing to shoot at, that we’d be targets for Russian auto-drones.
“And the time will come for a reckoning,” said Megan. “When God’s final test will be laid upon you in a blanket of fire and chaos. We will know then the true purpose of our existence—the meaning of death and faith.”
A short time later, the APC screeched to a halt and the floor dropped out beneath us, a Marine commander’s voice coming over the intercom. “Everybody out. Inbound, E-T-A two minutes.” Already the plasma turret spun slowly as it tracked its first target, still not visible over the horizon.
Megan’s voice clicked over the headset. “Button up. Take cover.”
I glanced to the side as we sprinted. There were still at least a thousand of my sisters and three times as many Marines, but we had begun the day before with more than twenty thousand girls, and I wondered how many more we’d lose in the next few minutes. Tamdybulak swallowed us in its rubble. Megan and I spotted a gap between two overturned slabs of crumbling concrete and dove in, just as the APCs opened fire.
“I will be as a viper,” I whispered, “hidden until the time is right. I will melt my enemies from the earth, and slaughter his family so that none may take up arms again. Each death is a trophy for my Lord, a testament to my willingness. This is a test of faith.” The pulsing of plasma cannons shook the ground so that dust and pebbles pattered on my helmet like rain.
Like most of the settlements you encountered in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, Tamdybulak had been reduced to a sea of blackened rubble, pockmarked by thousands of craters, and the inhabitants had long since fled or been killed. Dust coursed around us as a strong wind blew through the ruins.
A factory once stood nearby, its iron girders still poking up vertically among the wreckage, and two storage silos managed to hold on to their concrete sheathing, which had been riddled with shrapnel and partially melted by the heat of plasma. “Look,” said Megan, pointing to an APC that sat in the factory’s center.
We saw a Marine. The man jumped from the APC and scrambled over a pile of rubble, searching for a hole large enough to hide in, but all of them had been taken and the man began to curse.
“A fool,” I said.
“Fire, fire, fire,” someone announced over my headset, “eighty thousand inbound.”
Through a crack between concrete blocks, we saw thousands of rocket trails crest the horizon. The first missile hit the APC directly in the crew compartment and blew the front half into a cloud of ceramic, catapulting the vehicle ten meters into the air. When it landed the wheels popped off, one of them rolling directly toward our position while three missiles homed in on the movement. They struck simultaneously. I was closer than Megan, and screamed when the explosions blew me upward several feet, the huge concrete slabs flipping aside as if they had been feathers. Once I collected myself, Megan and I crawled into a new position, scurrying under one of the slabs that had been tossed over.
The attack ended quickly, and we waited for the next volley. But before the remaining Russian drones could fire another salvo, a squadron of Marine fighters roared overhead, forcing the enemy aircraft to flee, after which I looked down again to see the man who had been trying to find cover; he pulled himself along the ground, with both his legs now missing. We watched, until a few minutes later he lay still.
Megan must have noticed something in me—despite the fact that I was still fully suited. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
I pulled my helmet off and vomited; it surprised me more than it did her, and my scalp grew hotter until it felt as though the branding scar, on the back of my head, had ignited into flame.
After training they branded a lily on Megan’s head and epoxied a white enamel lily on each shoulder of her armor, symbols which meant that she could be followed, the purest among pure. It seemed like yesterday, but in a different world.
Our final atelier test had nothing to do with military training, but everything to do with faith. The unit Mother, Sister Miriam Anne, would conduct it. Atelier technicians assigned a hundred of us to each family, crammed into a small barracks with our mother’s apartment at the far end where she watched over her daughters. The mothers were all bald, but much older than us, and had their own uniform—a clean white dress, white shoes, and a white scarf that they tied over their heads to protect themselves from the sun. Of all of them, only Sister Miriam carried a rattan cane. Of all of them, Sister Miriam knew how to use the cane best.
On the evening before our final exam, we returned from field exercises exhausted, mud covering every inch of our orange uniforms and caking the partial armor and combat kits that now felt a hundred pounds heavier. Megan and I always grinned. In those days it felt exhilarating, because as we mentally shut off each twinge of pain, it reminded us that we had almost made it, that soon we would be accepted into the sisterhood of warfare. Sister Miriam waited for us on the barracks steps, and frowned when she saw my arm draped over Megan’s shoulder.
“Miss Megan,” she said. “A word.”
Megan pushed me away and gave me her look, I’ll catch up with you inside, but after moving through the door I stopped to watch through a narrow window. Sister Miriam waited. When Megan got close to her, she lifted her cane and swung it over and over, until a spray of blood came from Megan’s mouth and spattered Sister Miriam’s dress. The red looked brilliant against the white. When Megan finally collapsed onto the ground, her bald scalp lacerated in several places, the beating stopped and Sister Miriam lowered herself to whisper something. Megan began sobbing.
After she finally returned to the barracks I tried to hug her, but Megan stepped back. “Don’t touch me.”
“Why? What did Mother say?”
She shrugged and removed the first aid kit from her pack. “They worry about us. You and me. They have seen us together.”
“So what?” I asked. “It matters for nothing, we are not the only ones who love each other.”
“It matters for everything!” Several of the other girls stopped what they were doing and stared. Megan lowered her voice. “Tomorrow is our final exam. I want the lily, can’t you understand that? To be one among a hundred is a great honor. Second only to death. Our feelings make us less efficient, get in the way of duty, make us impure.”
I felt as though she had knocked the wind out of me, and said nothing. I wanted the lily too. We showered in silence and walked through the mess line without speaking to each other, not even saying good night when the lights went out. The carbine kept me awake. Its cold barrel poked me in the cheek, and wouldn’t let me drift off, making me more and more nervous so that I forgot about Megan as the next day approached. The day of our final test. Reveille sounded before sunrise, and we rolled from our racks, dressing in fresh uniforms and boots. I had never been that nervous. But we were so ready—all of us—that they could have put us in a cage with a thousand lions and we would have leapt at them, shredding with our bare hands anything stupid enough to resist us.
Instead of lions, however, they gave us kittens. Our mothers issued them soon after we reached fifteen-equivalent and ordered us to care for the animals, to play with them several times a day. Mine I had named Megan, and Megan had called hers Catherine, and as we waited on the cold morning of our final exam, Sister Miriam stood in front of a row of APCs on the parade ground, where she pointed at stacks of small animal cages. You heard the kittens—now full-grown cats—mewling, and I felt something then, but didn’t know what to call it, didn’t recognize horror until later.
“Good morning, my daughters,” she said.
We answered in unison. “Good morning, Blessed Mother.”
“My people were created in God’s image, and you were created in ours. Facsimiles, identical to each other in every way, close to perfection. Serve humanity loyally and without question and, like us, you will earn a seat at His right hand.
“Today you become women. Perfection. The first of your kind were male, Germline-A, a failed experiment who turned on their creators, their aggression untamable, their bravery so psychotic that they became strategic liabilities and tactical failures. Not so with you. Today you are sixteen-equivalent. For the next two years you will kill at every turn, and the sight of fallen enemies will warm your hearts. Across the atelier right now, there are hundreds of ceremonies like this one, all of you destined for eternal glory, but within this group, in my family, there is one. One among a hundred. One Lily, pure and without sign of spoil.”
Megan shifted beside me.
“Megan. Step forward.” When she approached, Sister Miriam placed her hand on Megan’s shoulder and handed her the cat, Catherine. Then she attached a series of sensors to Megan’s forehead and stepped back. “When I give the command,” Sister Miriam said, “snap its neck.”
I didn’t know if anyone else saw it, but I did. Muscles tightened on Megan’s jaw and she cocked her head forward, signs of sadness that I recognized instantly. Even I felt something, a whisper, like someone had sent an invisible message that what was about to happen was more than just wrong. Evil. In the aftermath of the test and by the time we landed in combat, the sensation had gone, burrowed into the darkest parts of my mind where I never thought I’d see it again, but on that day it was clear.
“Now,” said Sister Miriam. Megan didn’t hesitate. She twisted the cat’s neck and Sister Miriam watched the screen on her palm computer, hit a few keys, and then smiled. She pulled a small metal rod from her dress and pushed a button; the end of the rod glowed white a few seconds later as she walked behind Megan. “Lean forward,” she said.
Sister Miriam turned to us then and raised her voice. “This is your Lily. Follow her and listen to her words, for in them there will never be spoil, never a taint. She speaks for us, for the ateliers, and for God.”
Megan never flinched. Her skin smoldered, a quiet hiss as the brand melted the thin layer of flesh at the back of her scalp. We all lined up then, one by one slaughtering our cats. But a few of the girls must have done something wrong because technicians led them away and we never saw them again.
Where Megan had been branded a Lily, on the head, we also received the brand, a single mark on our skin, mine identical to all others: the number “1.”
I saw the lily on Megan’s head now, as the sun set over Tamdybulak. The scar had blended into her skin and one of the two enamel flowers on her armor had lost its petals; the other had completely broken off, and I wondered if she still felt the same about the honor—if time altered a Lily the same way it had spoiled me—but there wasn’t a chance to finish the thought. We had finished digging defensive positions and stared to the northeast when she pointed. A lone Russian in combat armor had crawled to the edge of a distant rubble field.
“Contact,” Megan said over the net. “Enemy scout sighted. Catherine.”
I wrapped my finger around the trigger, bringing up the sighting reticle, and slowly rested the carbine on a rock to wait for the feeling of joy that always preceded a kill. But it didn’t come. Instead the reticle trembled, its crosshairs bouncing around until I tongued another tranq tab, waiting for it to dissolve and cool me with a promise of control. The trigger pulled, a burst of a hundred flechettes impacted against the Russian’s faceplate, and he fell back to disappear in the wreckage.
“Clear,” said Megan, and she placed her helmet against mine so nobody else would hear. “Why did it take so long?”
But there was no answer to give. Something had shifted in me, perhaps during the plasma shelling east of Keriz, or in the APC as we fled in the face of advancing Russian forces; I didn’t know. But whatever it was felt like a betrayal of the mind, a mutiny of the limbs, and when the truth materialized it hit me in the chest so that my breathing quickened to the point where my bio-readout blinked yellow in warning: I was hyperventilating. The spoiling had finally reached my core. It was fear.
“I wanted to take my time,” I lied, “to enjoy it.”
Megan laughed. “There will truly be a special place for you. In heaven. Because in hell they are all too scared of you.”
For sinners, there is only destruction at the hands of My enemies, for they have taken of an accursed thing and have stolen.
MODERN COMBAT MANUAL JOSHUA 7:13
The Marine commander clicked in. He had surveyed the defensive line an hour before and I recognized his voice because he sounded musical, like someone who had once sung hymns to us in the tank, and for a few seconds it made me wonder if this was all a simulation—that an hour from now I would be born again, new and fifteen.
“Marine and Foreign Legion forces,” he said, “are ordered to retreat and reform at Uchkuduk. Genetic orders incoming.”
Megan and I heard men shouting and we rolled over to watch while Marines, some of them tossing their weapons into the rubble so they could run more quickly, retreated into their APCs, and when the vehicles had finished on-loading, the wheels turned slowly, rumbling southward in clouds of dust. Abandoning us.
One of the Marines shouted as his APC hatch swung shut. “See ya, bitches!”
And time stopped. My hands trembled in their gauntlets in a way that was noticeable only if you looked closely and the suit air had turned rank, forcing me to endure the smell of terror, a sweat that wouldn’t stop although it was cold enough inside the carapace to make me shiver. The newness of the sensation fed on itself, made the fear grow in my chest until I clenched my teeth so that they wouldn’t betray my anxiousness with chattering. Concentrate on the sky, I thought, the ground, anything, until finally I saw a single clover that had survived the trampling, plasma, and digging that Tamdybulak had suffered for the last several years. The thing was new. Green, and it waved in a breeze. I was about to look away when the realization hit that it had survived everything, without a display of emotion and without fear, so that I slammed my fist against the plant until it collapsed into the dirt, buried under concrete and rock.
Orders eventually popped up on our displays: Enemy attack expected within ten to twenty-four hours. Hold Tamdybulak. No relief expected. Maintain as high a kill-loss ratio as possible.
“We need to increase the kill-loss ratio for series one,” said Alderson. He sat across from me, wearing the same white coat as always but this time he had come closer to the lines, underground, where wet air draped everything in a thick and invisible mantle. The atmosphere was steamy, and surrounding rock hummed with the sound of ventilation as a hundred pumps fought to bring cooler stuff from several kilometers above and force hot airborne waste—along with its scent of decay, sweat, and burning ceramic—into the alleyways of Shymkent, into the sky, into the lungs of Kazakhs. And there were other sounds. Plasma shells pounded the rock above and my ears noted the vibrations, sending data to my mind where neurons converted frequencies into probabilities in less than a microsecond: these were Russian shells intended to deny the topside while their infiltrators crawled into our lines. Soon I would move upward. We would meet them, the Russian nonbred who had overcome fear and so deserved my attention, had earned more than an average death from heart disease, or old age, or cancer. Our humans called them Popovs. But the word didn’t fit and felt too demeaning, for even though the Russians were nonbred, at least they showed a kind of dignity in their efforts to die rather than fade off, showed fiber in a world of rubble and cowardice.
Then there was Alderson, trying to hand me something. My vision didn’t register on what he held but instead on the tremble in his fingers, a shakiness that infected the man’s throat so that when he spoke, his words vibrated like the walls.
“… so take this.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, not moving for the packet he offered.
“Never mind me, you’re sixteen and a half. Equivalent. And according to our data your group has the highest kill rate, and the other genetics in your outfit call you ‘the Little Murderer.’ We like this. So you have to take this medicine. It will help with our research.”
“But you shake. Why? The only thing that could possibly reach us here is a deep penetrator and the Russian attack suggests they want our underground positions intact, not collapsed. Even if they did penetrate, we would be invincible in glory. Death and life are not the same; death is better. And Bentley was a better man than you. Even though you’ve done the right thing by coming here, to where it all could end, I still think he was more like us.”
“I don’t have to ask for you to take it. I could call my Special Forces escort and have them force you. An injection.”
“Why don’t you?”
Alderson didn’t say anything at first, and tapped the table.
“Because you are almost perfect at killing. Better than even the current crop of Lilies. The most promising prototype we’ve seen, an operational example of what we intended when designing genetic units. So we thought you should be asked. That maybe you’d take the agent willingly. We were being nice, Catherine.”
I grabbed the packet and ripped open the top before he could flinch. Better than the Lilies, even Megan? “What is it? A lie?”
“A psychotropic cocktail. Multiple pharmaceuticals designed to shut down portions of your nervous system, depriving the brain of certain signal pathways. A few months ago my research team in Bethesda found studies that had been conducted over two centuries ago; when taken in the correct doses, low doses, the treatment can stimulate creativity. It opens new neural connections. As a result, we think an appropriate regime could result in your brain generating new ideas that otherwise would remain buried, making you a better, more inventive soldier.”
“You want me to find new ways to kill.”
Alderson shrugged. “Let’s say we want you to be creative. Artistic.”
The liquid tasted slightly metallic, like our recycled water, and I squeezed the packet as hard as I could, tilting my head back to shake out the last droplets. After a few minutes I shook my head.
“It doesn’t work.”
“Give it time,” he said. “Sometimes these types of drugs don’t kick in for an hour, or their effects are so subtle that you don’t even notice. In the meantime our recon drones suggest that the Russians are attempting another infiltration topside, but the data is inconclusive. If they come, we want you and the other Germline-Ones to meet them. Sentry bots will be deactivated and your mission will be to stop the attack with no support.”
“All of us have been given this treatment?”
He grinned and took out his computer. “Just you. We’ll follow your progress via drone, documenting changes to your effectiveness.”
“Then I should rejoin my sisters.”
“No.” Alderson motioned for me to stay in my seat and began typing. “There’s time for that still. Right now I need to ask you some questions.”
And then I noticed. The vibrations of plasma impacts moved through the rock and into my body so the energy became a living thing, communicating anger, whispering about the plasma shells’ rage at having been denied real tissue, which I understood and which made me sympathetic to them, made me want to bring Alderson topside. They needed a sacrifice. If the rounds consumed him they would have at least something for their troubles and the shells showed more bravery in their short existence than he had in an entire nonbred life. But then it changed again. Alderson’s coat shone brightly, even in dim combat lamps that should have made it seem blue, but instead the garment became so brilliant that I could only stand to look at him for a moment. Each thread came into focus—as if my vision had reached a new level of acuity, perfectly tuned.
“And now for the last question,” he said.
Excerpted from Exogene by McCarthy, T.C. Copyright © 2012 by McCarthy, T.C.. Excerpted by permission.
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