In the bunk room, I pick shrapnel out of the puckered skin around my knee.
“Med can assist,” comes the voice in my ear. “Topical anaesthetic available.”
No thank you, I think back. I’d like to do this myself.
The sheets are pale blue, smooth and clean, and I’m about to splatter them with blood. Too late now. This is a minor wound, and I’m quite capable of seeing to it myself, of instructing my hands in the delicate motions to repair it, quite capable of not fainting under the pain of each extraction.
By the time it is finished, I feel like vomiting. The only other in the room, Lance Corporal Cannan, a convicted murderer, is asleep, so I could probably get away with it, but instead I swallow painfully, pour half a bottle of antiseptic over the wound, and bandage myself up.
I’ll be back on the front lines shortly. Six years to go. Six years of war.
We fight good, honest, ethical wars these days. I’ve seen film from a previous era, on Earth or its closest planets, of drones striking the innocent, cities in ruins. The Harken-Achanli treaty put paid to that. We know, though we don’t like to admit it, that humans are the weaker of the three known races. When our governments see how quickly all their worlds can be taken over or obliterated by aliens many times more advanced than us, they have to pay more than lip-service to not killing civilians.
So everyone on the battlefield is, at least nominally, a volunteer. We’ve chosen to fight Cerule over this strip of dusty land or, a few hundred miles away, New Catalonia over water supply. Most have been found guilty in a court of law of a sufficiently heinous crime that this is their only chance of freedom. Others have fled a hostile nation or planet, and are paying the price of citizenship. And some of us have other reasons, like me.
The bell sounds and there is a hiss in my ear which signifies external command kicking in. I’m pulled from my bunk, my arm moves to straighten my trousers and I’m standing, perfectly arched back, against my bunk. Cannan has leapt down from hers, and other soldiers file in, in various states of tidiness. I look out at the 32 perfectly made beds. Mine is a disaster. Blood and antiseptic are dripping down my leg. Waves of childhood shame wash over me. “Elevated heart rate,” the voice in my ear confirms.
Thanks! I think back, probably unwisely. Never would have noticed that.
I try to not hold anything against the Sergeant who enters this room, the sound of his boots on the grey glass corridors making me shudder. I know exactly what’s happening, that the voice in his ear is informing his every word. Computers are good at this kind of interaction.
“Is your bunk made correctly?”
“Do you have an excuse for this?”
“I was injured and I…”
“Do you have an excuse for this?”
“No Ser. No excuse Ser.”
Like I said, computers are good at this type of interaction. The external command drops off, and all but three of us file out. Cannan gives me a sympathetic nod as she leaves. Not sympathetic as in “poor you” but closer to “we both know they’re a pile of shit”. I think my way through each fast motion, while behind me I can hear Private Joben shaking out his bedsheets as if raising a sail to catch an imaginary wind.
Being able to make my bed like this, a skill afforded to me by the wires and implants running through my body, is still a novelty, and one I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with. As a child, my ability to move was unpredictable. It was like, I said once, having message scramblers along my nervous system. Anything could become scrambled in any way. Move your left foot forward one step might emerge as just that, but it could also result in me putting my right foot atop my left and falling facedown in the dust. Chairs and exosuits, which allowed me to choose from pre-selected sequences of movements, none designed to injure me, helped. My body still didn’t do what I wanted much of the time, but what it did at least translated into typical patterns like “moving forward”.
The command system, wires made of organic material implanted throughout my body, was, I told people, what would make me normal. It’s true, I can make near every movement anyone else can. I can climb rockfaces, I can dance. What I don’t tell them is that none of it comes automatically. That I have to plan each motion in my brain. That just as internal command augments rather than replaces their abilities, so it has done mine. That motion still requires conscious thought, draining mental effort, in a way they’ll never understand.
They think I’m cured. Right now, I want them to keep thinking that.
I pull the sheets off the bed and refit them. I’ll be back on the front lines tomorrow; I need to make the most of today. The blasts that shake the building even back here don’t make me jump any more, but the thought of being back in the thick of it sends a cold shudder through my skin like a wave.
After our attempts are finally approved, Joben and I make our way to the mess hall where there’s cold hi-carb, hi-protein food waiting for us. I don’t care anymore; it’s gone within seconds. After collecting my equipment from servicing, I steal time to compose a message to my family.
I hope you are all well. Things carry on here much the same, and as usually you’ll know more about the progress of the wars than I do out here. I have sustained a minor—minor! don’t worry!—injury but it’s healing well. I’m now past my second year of service. Six years to go. That desk job at central office is very appealing right now. I know you are worried, but I also know you understand what a difference this can make to my life. Your support means everything; I know that with persistence I’ll have the life I always dreamed of, be the person I always knew I was supposed to be.
I tell myself that part of being an adult is distancing yourself from your parents, finding your own beliefs. But it doesn’t stop me feeling that each time I tell them something like this, it’s driving a wedge between us that will never be healed.
Janny, good luck with your exams. Remember, no one will care about them in a year or two (and yes, I can see mum shaking her head in disgust I’ve told you that. Sorry, ma, but it’s the truth!).
All my love to all of you,
Private Merie Jae Tanner 59FFRK920 Platoon 867
Unclassified Personal Communication
Before the sun rises in its murky, turquoise haze, we are en route to the front, clinging to the side of buggies, pulling on noise insulators one handed as the sound of plasma fire grows louder. Nausea grows in me, and not for the first time I wonder if I could leap down into the blue-grey dust and run and run and run.
Of course, I can’t. That’s the whole point of this setup.
Once, back on Earth, wars were driven by fervour and patriotism. Young men—it was mostly men then, I’m told—stood firm in the face of danger, their conviction that they were in the right outweighing the determination of the body to save itself. They clambered out of trenches into direct fire, kept walking as mines picked off one then another.
That’s what they tell us, anyway. And that our generation is a fickle one, our society selfish and materialistic. We probably all believe that this strip of land is ours by right; no doubt some of us even believe that’s worth fighting for. But I don’t know anyone who believes it strongly enough that when it comes to it, when there’s plasma fire in front of you about to burn open your chest or blow off your face, that instinct won’t kick in and tell you to run the hell away.
I pull on my eye shields as the flashes grow brighter. Did I mention oxygen’s increasing again? That sure makes warfare fun.
So these days, they make it so we can’t run away. We’ve all signed up to this, of course, so they can fulfil treaty requirements that we’re not forced into anything. But once we leap down from these buggies, we’re switched to external command. The command system moves our bodies, not us. No matter how much everything in us is signalling otherwise, even if we consciously try and override it, our bodies are not our own. And so we stay and so we fight.
I turn my head and give weak smiles to Cannan, in front of me, and Joben behind. Our eyes say it’s okay, that we’ll make it through this. It doesn’t matter that the odds are that, if we do, they’ll get us some other time. Both of them have been here a while, and we’re all still alive and intend to stay that way. Survive all eight of these terrifying, ugly years.
That’s the mark everyone’s aiming for. Eight years and our term of service is up and we are free. Eight years and the felons have their records erased and are allowed back into society. Eight years and we get a nice resettlement grant and a desk job at Central Office if we so desire. Eight years and external command falls forever silent. Eight years and I get the life I used to dream of.
But for now there’s only the blue dust, the plasma guns in our hands, and the flashes of fire. The buggy slows as it turns and we leap down, one after another, into the dust, and as soon as our boots hit the ground the command switches over, we’re pulled instantly to standing and we run to make way for others jumping to the ground behind us. The dust coats our eye shields and then falls away, our hands draw our guns as we’re tugged into formation. Our footsteps drum out a continuous rhythm in what I still think of as low gravity; fast and unpausing, over mounds and debris, never stopping, fanning out into a series of lines approaching the front, taking cover between rows of defences built on previous shifts.
We fire and we return fire, make repeated assaults, form new formations. We edge forwards and gain small slivers of territory only to lose them again, try not to look around us and see those who have been felled. Stims are pumped in until I no longer feel awake, only alert. The cooling system in my armour turns my sweat into a layer of cold.
When night falls, the fighting dies down. It’s more force of habit that anything else; it’s not like we couldn’t illuminate the whole battlefield if we chose to. But night is a time for shattered sleep and surprise assaults. Watch shifts are assigned and we fall back to makeshift shelters and dust-dug trenches. I use a wet wipe to try and scrape the worst of the dust from my arms, take off my outer armour and lie tightly squeezed in, in a line of soldiers.
I don’t think I’ll ever like this dust again, I think as I try and force myself to sleep. In childhood it was a welcome cushion from my many falls, my dust-covered clothes and face treated as endearing. In adulthood I learned to appreciate it as a natural feature of the planet, a pre-human beauty, sacred in its own right. But now it is bound with blood and exhaustion, death and burning flesh…
“Induced sleep offered,” comes the voice in my ear.
Accept, I think back gratefully, and it comes instantly.
There are no attacks that night, though my sleep is disturbed by the anticipation of them. By the time a blue glow has begun to seep through the edges of the shelter, we are pulled to our feet, all armour on, spreading out into formation once again. My muscles ache already and it will be a while before another shift takes over, unless I get injured again.
It’s tempting sometimes.
I couldn’t do it. Emotionally maybe, physically I couldn’t. So I just do what I need to do. I fight.
Our armour has sensors that help us avoid fire, and it’s heavy today. I’m pulled to the left and right, falling down in the dust. I think the same thing has happened when Joben, a metre or two to my right, falls backwards, except he doesn’t get up. I look frantically around for a medic. No one.
Permission to tend wounded, I think.
“Medic will tend wounded. Keep fighting.” My hand squeezes the trigger and lets out another burst of fire, the plasma bright even through my eye shields.
No fucking medics here. Do you see a medic? Permission to tend the fucking wounded NOW!
I realise I’m not just thinking but shouting, though I’m not sure anyone can hear me over the din.
“Approved.” The voice sounds resigned, though of course I’m just imagining that. I run, turn him gently, knowing that his armour will protect his neck. His legs are torn and bloody, his face swollen, flesh pulsing through the spaces in his facial armour.
“Okay. Just move with me. We’ll get you out of here.” My mouth is dry.
“It’s almost my anniversary date,” he says, his mouth foaming with saliva, obscuring the words.
“How many years?” I ask, laying him down gently and surveying his injuries. Anything to keep him talking. The smell of singed flesh hits unexpectedly.
Shiite. I leap up and look away, biting down hard on my lip, aware that I should be reacting calmly, that I’m not helping, that this isn’t about me…
“Why would you say that? What’s wrong with you? You’ve just doomed yourself. That’s how it always goes.”
“We’re not in the movies,” he rasps. “I’ll be okay.”
Oddly, he is, though it’s many weeks before I hear news. His right leg is unsalvageable, but the prosthetics are good, and though the internal damage is significant it is also survivable. Eight years. He’s out of here. I’m not so lucky. The fire keeps picking us off. Two days after Joben’s injury, they pick off Private Halsew. Her face is black with plasma burns as I see her carted away. She’s less lucky than Joben. And here I want to rest and sob, but my body is forced to move, forced to stay.
And so this is how I try to survive my eight years out here in the dust, bullets and limbs flying in the lowered gravity.
It was in my early teens that the gravity began to decrease. A space station was launched into orbit around the sun, a spinning disk just visible at sunrise, a joint project between humans and Elaayans, deploying technology we had only used once before, and never on a populated planet. From it launched a wormhole into the centre of our world, sucking in molten rock and firing it into the sun. I remember the seismic waves of that era, the feeling of being constantly on edge, never sure if a rumbling was going to grow louder or roll longer, never sure when the next one would strike, dusty and uncertain days.
And I remember the celebrations too, the giant lit-up meter outside the council chambers, its goal—just under ten m/s²—the gravity of Earth, a world none of us were likely to ever see. I remember how people—even respectable people, officials and business people—would leap through the air, testing the new force, whooping in jubilation. For a while, it was comforting; the world seemed alien to them too, never quite doing what they’d expect. As much as they celebrated the change, they also struggled, using too much force or too little. I once saw a man attempt to leap onto a transport, exert too much power and bash his head on the upper doorframe.
I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did. And perhaps it is moments like this that define the future: a fourteen year old girl in a clunky exosuit and a messy ponytail, standing by the side of the road laughing at this world turned upside down.
My delight was shortlived. Though the decreased gravity ultimately made things easier for most, it took me much longer to acclimatise. Even now, now the gravity has adjusted and wormholes formed in several more planets in turn, it suits me less well. The heavy pull on my body grounded me, drawing out and stabilizing my movements. Once the gravity decreased, I may have fallen lighter but I fell more. My carefully and exhaustingly practiced motions needed to be relearned. I felt as if not just society, but the literal physical world had turned on me, slammed doors in front of my face.
Oh sure, there was a fair heap of teenage melodrama amidst my rage, but there was also bitterness and hurt. I was learning just how invisible and insignificant I could be and would continue to be.
In my seventeenth year they melted ice to flood the Sahelan Basin, water gushing into the dust, murky and then settling. We were transported out there to watch from a high vantage point as it flowed, held back behind ropes. We had not seen a body of water like it before, and even in our cynical teens we could not help but be impressed.
But at night it haunted me. I dreamed I had been left on the floor of the basin when the evac sounded, my suit drained of power, scrabbling in the sand trying to stand, and the waves washing over me and over me until I was tugged beneath them, sinking and thrashing and pulled to the bottom.
I mentioned them to a classmate once, laughing at myself even as I didn’t find it funny. And that was how I found myself in an upper floor room, technically a bedroom of someone’s apartment but not furnished as such; rather, there was a bench around three walls and cushions on the floor. I, using a chair again at this point, took up a position in one corner, jutting out awkwardly into the room, trying not to block out too much seating. Exposed, out of place.
Someone pulled up a projection. It was a familiar sight—not this particular clip, which I hadn’t seen before—but the type of action it showed was one which had permeated our lives. This time, though, everyone in the room watched intently, their faces pained and serious, as crafts swept across a planet’s surface, releasing algae and nitrogen bundles which dropped like bombs onto the rocky surface.
“Harapana, third planet in the Karlwe system just two weeks ago,” said a tall woman rising from a cushion, her dark hair branching out in the artificial light as if by static. “Far from slowing, the pace of terraforming is increasing dramatically. The terms of the latest treaty mean humans are allowed to get away with… basically whatever the fuck we want provided we don’t make the planet uninhabitable for either of the other two known sentient species. Note the word make. If it’s already uninhabitable, we have free rein.”
The image of the shuttle, now extinguished, remained unshakeably in my head as she spoke. Something had been woken in me, the ability to see through the propaganda to a growing destruction. Later, as brownies were passed around, she came up to me. “I’m Lu,” she said, extending her hand. I missed, ending up grasping her sleeve. I knew instantly we’d become friends.
For two years, neglecting my studies, I worked on semi-underground anti-terraforming campaigns. Behind the scenes stuff: publicity and propaganda, logistics, organising supplies for groups in other areas and on other planets. Images of unspoilt planets filled me with an emotional intensity like I had never before known, and the absolutes, the enormities—how many billions of years it had been left alone, how completely it was gone forever—overwhelmed me.
We achieved minor victories; slight changes in protocols, designation of reserve areas. But the terraforming continued regardless, one uninhabited planet after another slowly turned into approximations of a world we’d never see. When we spoke about it, it was a moral question, a belief that each planet had almost an intrinsic right to be left alone. But for me there was something else. I wanted there to be worlds different to this one, worlds that might be more welcoming.
It was in the early hours of morning when I heard Lu and Kass—a stalwart of the movement who we not entirely jokingly referred to as our resident scientist—talking outside, in hushed but forceful tones. I’d been working through the night in our makeshift offices, my fingers greasy with the food I used to keep myself awake. The conversation I heard changed everything.
I heard snatches, knowing I shouldn’t be listening but unable to help myself. “We have to do this. What we’re doing from the outside just isn’t working. We need to be on the inside.”
“It’s eight years… eight years of war,” Lu responded.
“Well someone’s got to do it… it’s our only chance.”
“Let’s say you did. Let’s say this isn’t completely fucking stupid. They’d suspect you straight away. Or are you planning to get yourself sent to prison as well?”
“I could do it,” I said, forcing my voice not to shake. They both swung round. “They’d believe me if I volunteered.”
Kass reacted instantly, his hand flying to my shoulder. I stumbled. “No. You can’t do that.”
I raised my hand, adrenalin hitting, not yet understanding the enormity of my proposal. “You said someone’s got to. Well I’m the obvious choice. My motivations would make sense. I don’t need citizenship or exoneration, but those aren’t the only things they’re offering. You get internal command. They don’t remove the system when you’re discharged, just hand it over to you. Most people, it increases their physical capacity a little, they slow less as they age, but for me… it would give me a typical level of motor control. Make me normal, is what I’ll say. Now that would convince them.”
The authorities, when it came to it, did actually need some convincing, but they were also short of soldiers. Something about how they all kept dying. So I handed myself over to them under the observation of an appointed lawyer. In surgery I was numbed but awake so I could test the command. Recovery time in the accelerated chamber was six weeks. I had no right to change my mind. In those weeks I wondered how much I really believed in what I was doing, but I had to believe in something.
My custom armour was pre-fitted, deep purple to correspond with my rank. It made me feel unexpectedly vulnerable. I was sent to training and then to war, on a narrow strip of land two nations had been fighting over, on and off, since before I was born.
We’re transported back, eventually, only external command keeping our grip tight enough to hold us on the buggies, a mess of exhaustion and blood and singed dust. I’ve lost track, now, of how many times I’ve been to the front. Our armour is supposed to be a microsystem, temperature and humidity controlled, but each time my skin is red and raw, my breasts aching from the compression, my feet swollen and painful.
I sleep fitfully, uninduced. I wonder, again, how I can stick out my eight years but I really, literally have no choice. After a spate of suicides, they added a script that senses self-destructive actions, kicks in external command.
It’s all quite ironic really. I spent most of my life being told how I needed to foster my independence. The first major choice I made, going against everything I had been taught and requiring me to lie to my family, involved sacrificing it.
I find I’m sobbing, near silently. Though everyone has the option of turning on white noise in their ears—and they usually do—I still feel self-conscious in this crowded bunkroom. External command, I think, paralyse tear ducts.
I wonder how closely they monitor this type of thing, and how many people have to use functions like that. Whether I’m unusually weak, or if everyone thinks the same.
I stare at the plastic slats of the bunk above me, just able to make out their lines in the dimmed light. There’s a rustling in my field of hearing and then a voice crackles through. Not the one I’m used to.
“Merie. Merie are you there? Stay quiet. I can’t talk long.”
Unwisely, I sit bolt upright. Someone a couple of bunks away stirs in response to the sound, but thankfully returns to sleep. I lie back down, carefully. Kass?
“We don’t have long. Things have escalated. They’ve caught infiltrators on Baltica and Zagros. Explosion in New Chicago. Two dead. Terraforming shuttles destroyed. They say we did it.”
“Awaiting confirmation. But we’re all in danger. Many governments are taking activists into custody. If we lose our leaders, we lose the battle. And Lu…”
What about Lu? Panic is coursing through my veins. I’m not offered a tranq. Kass must have overridden the systems.
“Lu’s missing. We have to act now. Risks are high but we have no choice.”
It’s odd, because I’m being told the cause I believe in above all else is about to be crushed. That friends are missing or in prison. That I’m facing life imprisonment, if they stick to the law—and worse if they don’t. And then my first thought is that there will be no more six years. I won’t return to the front.
If they lock me away, I don’t think I’ll try and seek redemption out here. Not that they’d let me.
“Merie are you listening to me? You’re not our only infiltrator. Cannan was recruited in prison… there was a risk of… we needed to increase the odds someone would make it through.”
I feel a dull pain in my chest. I’d have made the same calculation, but it hurts knowing it was made about me.
“We need an army behind us. Merie, you need to take control of external command.”
My external command remains off. I’m aware of it even when in monitoring mode, and after two years it feels uncomfortably silent.
Today is, I tell myself, a death or freedom day. A change the universe or be forgotten day. It feels more like a I got fuck all sleep and really need a break right now type of day.
But these things are sent to try us, as my grandmother would say, or choices have consequences, to quote one of the posters in the mess hall. I dress quietly, leave the room. I don’t have a plan.
There are few guards around the complex. We can be roused from our beds and at full combat capacity in seconds should an attack come from outside, and external command can sense if we’re anywhere we shouldn’t and control us. It’s a while down the glass corridor before I come to a guard.
“Nightmares,” I say. “I don’t want sleep, just to be alone for a bit.” I’m taking a risk; it’ll be sheer luck as to whether I receive empathy or get told to harden the fuck up. A soldier’s own experience can push them either way. But tonight, I’m lucky.
I take a right at the end of the corridor and then break into a run. I hope my guess about which bunkroom Cannan’s in is correct.
“Heading back to bed,” I say to the next guard I come across. They’ll have changed shifts half an hour ago so we won’t know from sight which room I’m in. At lease I hope not.
I wake Cannan with a hand over her mouth, pushing three fingers into her arm, hoping she understands because I can’t take the risk of waking anyone. Three fingers for the three tyrannies, of terran sea, terran land and terran sky.
She carefully eases herself out of bed, fully clothed, and pulls me into one of the adjoining washrooms. We whisper amongst rows of sinks and showers, and I can only hope no one’s listening in.
“I’ve been waiting for you. What are we doing?”
“Kass says we need to take control of external command, send troops to support them.”
“And how do we do that?”
My mouth is dry. I’m thinking on my feet, blood pressure building up in my face until it’s burning. “I think we’d have to localise it first. I don’t think other bases can be controlled from here, so it would be best to shut it off entirely. If we need to, we can use the soldiers to take over other bases and bring them under our control.”
“Before they told me tonight,” she whispers, “I never would have picked you as one of us.”
I ignore her. “I’ve no idea how the whole thing works though. I didn’t expect to even have to think about this until… well, six years from now.” I can almost see those six years melting away in front of me.
“I’ve done a bit of research. We’ll go for the long-range antenna first. Let’s get out of here.”
Cannan takes a bar from her trousers and levers the window from the wall. She’s much more prepared than I am; I’m in hastily thrown on clothes and only half awake. We drop ourselves down into dust, run crouched to the antenna.
Cannan takes a pair of wire cutters from her other leg. I frown at the wires leading up the skeletal transmission column. Point at two. Part knowledge, mostly instinct. This isn’t a bomb, I tell myself, but that’s not enough to quell the panic. Nothing happens. She looks at me and I shrug. I suppose we just won’t know if it has been successful until the end.
I hear noise behind us, swing round. Private Brinshe has followed us from the bunkroom.
In a second Cannan is holding a gun to his throat. He’s a weedy kid, in his twenties but looks barely eighteen, a refugee from a failed planet, citizenshipless with nowhere to go. We joined as part of the same cohort, trained together. Cannan’s still not taking any chances.
“It’s real easy,” I hear her saying. “We’re gonna stop the terraforming and you’re gonna shut up and die. Actually dead people are pretty quiet so I suppose it’s the same thing.”
I stifle a laugh. I’m not sure how much of Cannan’s style is an act, but the absurdity is pretty close to funny right now. Or would be, if our lives weren’t hanging in the balance.
“You’re… anti-terraforming. What about her?”
Cannan raises her eyebrows in despair. Brinshe looks at me in shock. “You… did this to infiltrate? I thought you were doing it so you could walk.”
I laugh, bitterly, the ground feeling illogically unstable beneath me. “You think my life was so terrible that I’d spend eight years getting shot at just to make it a little easier.”
“I… no… I…”
I smile, more kindly that I feel. “Oh whatever. It wouldn’t have worked hadn’t so many people thought like you. That I was just this tragic girl who would do anything for a miracle cure, and no one even considering that I might have beliefs or goals, that I would die for something other than myself. And for the record my life was pretty great, difficult, sure, but…”
I’m getting teary. Longing for a life I left behind, a life which so many people thought wasn’t even worth living. I’m too generous to articulate to Brinshe what I know he believes. That he saw my journey not as one to gain a better quality of technology, but one of salvation.
“Are you going to help me or not?” I say, swallowing my pain. I ignore the fact that Cannan’s giving him no choice. I need him truly on side.
His face is empty. Stunned by all his perceptions of me falling apart, perhaps, or more likely realising the danger we’re in. Recognition shows eventually, though uneasily. “Ok. Don’t see much other chance of me getting out of this. What do I do?”
We move to the command centre. There won’t be many guards here, because external command knows who should and should not be here. Cannan says that when Kass switched hers off he gave her a reactivate key and a false identity. It won’t last long, she says, maybe five minutes, before they figure it out. And she can’t be certain if it will work.
I watch as the glass walls slide open before her. For all that this is a hastily constructed base on a constantly changing border, they’ve put some effort into this. I move hastily, barely waiting until Cannan’s false identity has overridden the security of the system to start dragging at the screen, trying to work out how this all fits together… and how I can change it.
The noise comes before I realise it, and then it’s all upon us. A guard is approaching, weapon drawn, Cannan spins and then she falls. He’s approaching, I know it’s over, and then he falls, burning flesh blocking up the air. Brinshe stands still as if frozen, his weapon still drawn.
They’ll know within seconds, now he’s dead. I can’t do anything but keep frantically going—I’m part way there, and then the whole system falls into place. Paralyse. Everyone on the base motionless.
I finally breathe.
I’m there, and the power awaiting me seems surreal. Merie Tanner, the kid people dismissed because she “couldn’t even control her own body”, now with the ability to move armies. A puppet master, of sorts, thousands of bodies at my command, moving exactly how I command. If only they could see me now. Perhaps they will see me now.
Perhaps I’d make a good evil genius, cackling away at my controls. The image provides a brief moment of levity amidst the smell of burned flesh. And then I’m back to being me, me in circumstances I would never have thought possible.
I turn, finally, make eye contact with Brinshe and he lowers his weapon slowly.
“You’re going to turn them against the government,” he says. It’s not really a question. I hesitate. I think that’s what Kass has planned; to send them all back to the capital. But I’m not sure I can force anyone to fight my war. Not after what I’ve seen.
I look at the screen, find what I’m looking for. The news projection splutters then comes to life, a blond woman reading the latest updates.
…will not give in to terrorists. In a move to show that the pace of terraforming is unhindered, the Interplanetary Authority has named the tenth planet to benefit from gravitational reduction as Zagros. Yesterday scientific development centres outside the Zagros city of New Chicago were rocked by explosions believed to have been carried out by anti-terraforming extremists. In a statement, IPA Convenor Jameel Elangue praised the Zagrosian authorities for their quick response and apprehension of suspects and said he hoped the gravitational adjustment would send a message to the people of Zagros that they will not be abandoned or disadvantaged by…
I switch it off. Another image. The ring of the station hanging in space, somewhere between us and the sun which I can see the first glow of through the glass roof. I turn to look at Brinshe.
“They’re already against the government,” I say.
My voice sounds shaky as I project it to every immobilised soldier on the base. “The International… the International Government and the IPA have thought for too long that everything is theirs. That our lives are theirs to put on the battleground. That our bodies are theirs to control. That every planet is theirs to mold in the likeness of a faraway world. It’s time to stand up. I will do no harm to any of you, but I call for volunteers to undertake a mission against a power that has gone too far. There are risks, but there is also hope.”
There is silence. My heart is beating furiously and every part of me aches.
Perhaps we’ve lost.
And then symbols flicker up in projection and I hear the unmistakable sound of boots clinking against the corridors, see, finally, the volunteers arrive.
I use the systems to track the nearest shuttle, do a quick assessment of skills. Three with piloting ability is luckier than I could imagine, even though most of the control will be done from the ground. We take a buggy the few miles to a shuttle, leaving behind a base in wakeful sleep, and I laugh as the dust blows up into my face—an anxious laugh born of sleep deprivation, but a laugh nonetheless.
As the shuttle takes off, I breathe. “Kass, are you there? Kass, respond please, respond.”
I think Kass’s response was along the lines of “what the fuck have you done?” He was waiting on troops to back them up in the city, but instead, invisible to the naked eye, there were flashes in the sky two days later. A station left disarmed and empty, a waste of metal floating above us.
“I couldn’t send them to another war,” I said later. “I couldn’t.” He said he understood, but he may just have been saying that, because what good would an argument do now.
Gravity adjustments were halted, perhaps forever. The IPA would have a hard time convincing the races responsible for much of the technology to work with us again, given how irresponsible humans had been with it this time. Opinion turned more in favour of us than it did against us. Bowing to popular pressure, new treaties were negotiated. A partial victory in a long, long war.
But for those of us at the heart of the whole episode, we’re still terrorists. There’s no safe place for us here.
I walk slowly to my shuttle, sit cramped between two others. It’ll be a long trip and I know only our first port of call and not my final destination. In my luggage are parts that will replace elements of my internal command system as they wear out. It’s useful for now, worth maintaining. But as the bars come down to hold us in place for take-off, I’m dreaming of a world where I won’t even want it, that somewhere amidst the millions of undiscovered, untouched worlds, there’s one I was born for.
This story originally appeared in Accessing the Future anthology from The Future Fire.