From the author: When the veteran of a future, alien war is compelled to muster out, will they strip her of her cybernetics to render her 'safe' for the general population? In doing so, will they take from her all she's ever known?
Hospitals adhered to universal constants. Khaki or gray walls. Khaki or gray tiles. Or, for a change-up, gray or khaki carpeting. The penetrating aroma of antiseptics and cleaning fluids, just barely masking fouler odors from a cart, positioned just outside the small lobby with its cluster of khaki-colored chairs. The hiss of forced air, the rattle of a vent overhead.
Maris Kearney registered all these things, and more. The rhythmic breathing of the men in the chairs around her. The vibration of their heartbeats, out of step with one another, hammering at the air and vibrating against her skin. A broom fell from the cart near them with a clatter, and five people jumped, reacting to the sound, heads jerking. Maris was one of them, a targeting reticle appearing in her field of vision, along with numbers that scrolled there, informing her that the heart-rates of the others had hitched up by an average of ten beats per minute, taking them well into the agitated range. Agitated. You don’t say.
Then, like the rest, she settled back into her uncomfortable chair, not making eye contact with the others.
“You all mustering out?” the man beside her ventured, after a moment. The first words spoken in twenty minutes sounded loud in the air.
Maris nodded jerkily.
“Man, I am looking forward to going home,” he opined. “Seeing my wife and kids again. First time in four years.”
“Tours have been getting longer,” another man put in. “Just getting out in the black to where the enemy’s positions were took forever. But now that the war’s over. . . .”
They all paused. “Doesn’t feel quite real,” Maris muttered. “The war’s been going on since before I was born.”
“Oh, it’s real,” the man to her left said, smiling as he leaned back in his chair. “It’ll be great to go back to being human again.”
She frowned slightly. What a thing to say. He looked older. In his forties. Maris had been born on Earth, but she couldn’t identify his accent offhand. “You’re not a lifer?” she asked, already suspecting the answer.
“Hell no,” he replied, shaking his head. “Applied for the Academy right out of high school. Got my degree, went in as an officer. Medical branch, before you ask.” A quick smile; Maris found the expression jarring, and had to study her own reaction to understand why. You can’t trust someone who smiles that much, the back of her head muttered. “Were you born into service? Or was it a plea-deal?” he asked now, sudden sympathy in his face and voice.
Maris tilted her head to the side. Off to her right, two of the others nodded, and she shifted, sending them internal pings through the chip architecture in her head. Both men blinked as her contact request scrolled across their internal HUDs, and then she received their acknowledgements. Names—Federigo Garcia and Jalal Nejem. Serial numbers, unit affiliations. Garcia had wear marks, almost scars, on his wrists and arms, visible under his short sleeves. A mech driver, he wore a robotic frame in combat. Nejem’s profile suggested that he specialized in robotics, controlling swarms of attack drones through a VR interface linked to his own chip.
Quick flashes, the pastiche of their identity walls. Wives, children. Nejem’s family vids all showed stark Martian backdrops; Garcia’s, all Argentinian. She returned the favor silently, knowing that her own pastiche was something of a fiction. As theirs must be, too. Pictures of a family she hadn’t seen in twelve years. A New York City background she hadn’t seen in fifteen. But her rank and rate were real: captain, infiltration and reconnaissance specialist.
“I said, were you born into service?” The question held mild impatience. Maris realized that thirty seconds had passed as she and the other two lifers had exchanged notes.
“Why do you say it like that?” Maris asked, looking down at her own forearms.
Bare of her usual color-shifting uniform, it felt odd to see her own skin. Her visual enhancements easily picked out the electronic circuitry tracing a subdermal path through her flesh, along with the carbon nanofibers interlaced through the cells of the epidermis. An iridescent tapestry to her enhanced eyes; invisible to ordinary ones.
The older man held up his hands peaceably. “I don’t mean any offense,” he replied affably. “It’s always just struck me as pretty godawful what was done to you kids.”
“Kids?” Garcia repeated, raising his dark eyebrows. “You don’t look that much older than I am.” The older man hadn’t identified himself by name or by rank. Garcia didn’t include any honorifics in his reply, as a result. “I joined at fifteen,” he added, with a shrug. “Juvenile offender. Seemed better than being tried as an adult.”
The words didn’t surprise Maris. Lifers came from all walks. For many, their lives were restitution for past crimes against society. In the service of others they lived. In the service of others, they died. The mix of semi-violent young offenders and people like her had made for an uncertain stew in the early years of the program, but had cooked to a cohesive whole these days.
She shrugged now, herself. “My parents screwed up,” she noted dryly. A flicker of intention, and her circuitry activated, changing the visible color of her skin in a regular pattern, and words rippled across her forearm. The words there were of her own choice: Name, rank, serial number, and unit badge. “They already had a kid each from a previous marriage. So I wound up paying the price for their inability to follow the simple goddamned rules of population control. But on the flip side? I got to serve my entire species.” She felt a faint smile curve her lips, there and then gone again. “I’ve fought on seven different planets in the past twelve years.” She lifted her head. Images flickered behind her eyes—not her internal storage files, but her own genuine memories. Crawling through alien underbrush, the chromophores of her organometallic armor shifting to match her surroundings, making her virtually invisible. Finding enemy camps and calling in the airstrikes.
The boots of her armor red with human blood to the ankles. Carrying friends away from ambush points. People dying on planets fifty light-years from Earth, and having to burn the bodies to prevent the Others from finding out too much about human physiology. The stench of charring flesh.
She shook it all away, and focused on better memories. Smiles. Camaraderie. The sight of rings stretching up into the sky above a terrestrial planet. Bounding over the surface of a moon with a gas giant looming turquoise and chill in the sky overhead. “Wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
“Oh?” the man beside her said, putting his hands behind his head and interlacing them there. The picture of relaxation. “I’m told that the processes used on lifers are invasive and painful.” He paused. “Inserting electronic circuitry that grew with you, for example. Self-replicating, and passing through your whole body. Nanites. The chips implanted in the thalamus, to integrate your internal systems with those in your suits. The machine-mind interface, too. For some people starting at the age of ten, for god’s sake.”
Maris glanced over at the other two lifers. Nejem shot her a message, blue-green text scrolling across the upper quadrant of her vision. He sure knows a lot about the process for someone who never went through it.
Garcia now, joining the chat channel as Maris opened it to include him, his text red-orange: Some people get off on it. Cyborg groupies.
Doesn’t seem to fit him, Maris responded, and started a search query through the local military databases for officers, medical branch, scheduled to muster out today. And blinked, surprised, as her passwords and credentials came back denied. What the hell?
Out loud, Nejem replied, an insincere but brilliantly white smile crossing his olive face, “I like the machine-mind interface, myself. I prefer being able to connect with everyone else in my squad. To know where they are in real time. Keeps the rate of friendly-fire down, you know?”
A faint, slightly sad smile crossed the unnamed officer’s face as Maris began to hammer silently at every database to which she should have had access. Civilian and open-access streams appeared to be available, but not the military servers. Okay, it’s all right. You’re mustering out today. They just term’d your access early, that’s all. She tossed the request at both Garcia and Nejem, who both frowned momentarily, their eyes flicking to the side as they, too, attempted to access the servers.
“They call it the human hive,” the officer beside her murmured. “I can see you three have already linked up. But that’s . . . not really something that normal humans do. You know that, right? Forming bonds, links, within moments of sitting down with strangers. It tends to make civilians uneasy.”
“Mierde,” Garcia replied harshly. “Connecting, creating bonds, is practically all that humans do.”
“Normal?” Maris put in, picking the word out as if with forceps, trying to keep her tone neutral. “What’s normal these days? We’ve got twenty million registered telepaths on Earth, the result of genetic experimentation. Almost a billion otherwise genetically modified humans.” The number included people who’d had adjustments to remove chronic genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, from their genome, so that they no longer expressed the traits. Or who had had diseases like diabetes removed from embryos prior to gestation. “And of course, forty million of the wired.” She preferred wired to cyborg. And of the wired, which included civilians who’d taken chips for entertainment or job purposes, roughly a twenty-five thousand were lifers. “Normal usually sounds like a code-word for genetically pure. Who’s to say what normal is, anyway?”
The man’s body language still spoke of relaxation. But his heart-rate had increased, and his body temperature, radiating from him, had risen as well. “The rest of society, I suppose,” he replied calmly. “I guess the real question is how you’re all going to adjust and adapt once they muster you out.” He paused. “You do know what that means, right?”
“A clear physical,” Nejem replied, almost automatically.
“Return of all military property,” Garcia added, and then paused, and then a message flashed in red-orange across Maris’ field of vision: Oh hell no. They wouldn’t, would they?
“Return of all military property,” Maris echoed, her voice suddenly hollow with dread. But I’ve been military property since they put the nanites and everything else in me when I was ten. They can’t—they wouldn’t . . . would they?
“I’m Dr. Luke Eszes,” the officer finally identified himself, and tapped on the wristpad he wore. Contact information flashed across Maris’ vision, ending with his specialization: psychiatry and counselling. “You should all feel free to contact me after whatever procedures you go through today.” Another sympathetic glance, which grated on her nerves. “I specialize in assisting soldiers with the transition to civilian life. Helping them figure out who they are, when they’re not in combat anymore.”
“So, are you actually mustering out today?” Garcia asked, his dark eyes glittering. “Or are you going to strike up this same conversation with the next batch of people processed through this area, too?”
Maris didn’t hear the reply. “Next! Captain Maris Kearney.” A flat, bored voice over the loudspeaker, and she turned, dread welling up from the pit of her stomach as a window in the wall nearby pulled back, revealing a nurse’s face. “Captain Kearney? Come on back.”
They wouldn’t. They can’t. Her feet felt heavier than they ever had, as if Earth’s gravity had suddenly tripled. Numbers flashed at the corner of her eye, informing her that her heart-rate had doubled, and that high levels of adrenaline and stress cortisol had been detected in her bloodstream. They can’t take the tech out of me. This is who I am. It’s different for people who volunteered, or who were drafted. They all entered the service at eighteen, or twenty-two. They have families. They have friends outside the service. They have lives that they can go back to. Maris took a deep breath, trying to fight down the panic. This has been my life since the first injections. Since the military prep school I boarded at with all the other kids born to serve. She swallowed, hard. And yet, if this is their intention . . . how can I possibly disobey or protest, when I’ve followed orders and served all my life?
The smiling nurse handed her a pink patient gown, which Maris gazed at in bafflement, and then tugged a curtain closed across the doorway of the cubical. The curtain had cheerful flowers and butterflies splashed across it. No sign of blood or other fluids, but Maris stared at it, remembering the triage area on her first ship. What had the doctors called those curtains then? Right. Wallpaper in hell.
She tried to ping Garcia and Nejem, but got no replies, which rattled her even worse. Isolation is the first step in psychological breaking, part of her mind whispered, but she tried not to listen. Isolation, cutting the subject off from all ties, all connections. Then, when they’re vulnerable, they can be reshaped. Or this could just be paranoia talking.
She doffed her shirt and pants, folding them neatly, and put on the stupidly pink gown. Alone. Naked, to create even more of a sense of vulnerability. Helplessness. Dependence on an authority figure, to be provided later.
Her head swung up as a doctor slipped past the curtains. This one was female, and reflexively, on spotting the woman’s nametag and rank insignia, Maris tried to run a simple query. Is this doctor a surgeon, or another shrink, like the one conveniently located in the waiting room? Again, her passwords came back denied.
“Hi there. I’m Dr. Nina Alvarez, and I’ll be helping you through the process.” Warm voice, bright smile, firm hand-shake, and lots of eye-contact. So I’ll know that I can trust you. “Have you been experiencing any discomfort with your chip architecture? Any headaches, dizziness, inability to sleep, nausea. . . .” The list went on for almost thirty seconds, ending with “or erectile dysfunction—whoops, well, that one wouldn’t apply, now would it?” Dr. Alvarez’s merry smile faded as Maris failed to return the expression.
“I’ve never attributed any such symptoms to the tech package. And I have not experienced any of those symptoms in the past six weeks. As should be evident from the diagnostic log you can access directly from the chip.” Maris kept her voice toneless. “I have never experienced discomfort from the dermal package, either, nor sensitivity from the corneal implants.” She tipped her head to the side. “Those were your next questions?”
Alvarez checked her pad, looking mildly vexed. “They were. It helps if patients don’t jump ahead,” she added reprovingly.
Yes, we wouldn’t want the patients to assert control of the conversation, Maris thought, feeling empty and distant. She catalogued the medications behind the glass cabinet doors behind the doctor; the names on the vials were distorted by the wavering glass, but interpolation software corrected for the effect. They have Versed on hand in an examining room? The drug was used in medical operations when the patient needed to be able to respond to questions, but also had to be detached from the pain and relaxed. It could also be used as a decent truth serum, as it more or less turned off the conscious mind and instilled deep relaxation. More troublingly, it suppressed memory formation.
Twenty minutes later, the doctor seemed ready to move past questions into the light chit-chat portion of the agenda, standing to go through the cabinets. Light, deft movements, rattling the kidney pans and tongue depressors there. “So, any plans now that you’re getting out?” Alvarez asked, her voice scrupulously friendly.
“Re-enlisting at a different center,” Maris replied bluntly, and watched the woman’s hands still.
“Really? Well . . . you’re thirty. No plans to get married, have a family?” The woman’s heart-rate dipped for a moment, and then sped up again.
“I’ve never particularly thought about it. I wasn’t supposed to be born, and I’m a lifer.” Maris tilted her head. Now, let’s see if she lies. “And I’ve always understood that the various tech packages in my body would make pregnancy difficult.” Cool, distant words. False ones. The dermal implants would grow and stretch with the skin of the abdomen during pregnancy. All bioelectricity supplying the implants is generated by my nervous system; no batteries or harmful chemicals in my blood. The nanites still in my system remain dormant until they’re needed to repair circuitry or the nano-tubules in my skin. And there’s no mechanical infiltration into my body cavity.
Alvarez turned, smiling tentatively. “Well, then you should be happy! Because you’re slated for the removal of all implants. Starting with the chip today. While you’re unconscious from the brain surgery anyway, they’ve scheduled you for the removal of the dermal implants, too. By the time you wake up, all the pain will be over with, and you’ll have your whole life in front of you.” A nasal syringe in her hand now, she advanced, still smiling. The same too-friendly expression as on the face of the psychiatrist in the lobby area.
Maris held up her hands where she sat on the edge of the table, warning the woman off. “I didn’t consent to any of that.” Her heart hammered in her ears. My life is service. They are terminating my service. I should follow that directive. I should let them turn me into a civilian, right? That’s the objective. That’s the goal everyone has. To live through the war, and then retire. Except that they’re going try to turn me into something I’m not. Take everything that makes me special, everything that connects me to the cadre, and throw it in a medical waste bin . . . .
Alvarez paused, frowning. “It’s in your standard enlistment agreement. You signed it—”
“My parents signed it for me—”
“And you signed every renewal after the age of eighteen.” Placid voice, empty eyes. “You can’t say that you didn’t know that the military would take its equipment back. Now, just lift your head, and let me give you this dose. I’d give this intravenously, but your dermal implants unfortunately make injections impossible—”
“I said, I don’t consent.” Maris stiff-armed the woman gently. “Get that thing away from me.”
“Captain Kearney, we only want to help you! You’re more than your tech,” Alvarez went on, her words soothing, while trying to sidle in on Maris again, syringe still in hand. “You’re more than just a weapon. But you can’t rejoin society with military-grade enhancements in your body. You’ll be a danger to everyone around you.”
“Funny. They’ve trusted me to point my weapons at the enemy for twelve years, but now that there isn’t an enemy anymore, I can’t be trusted?” Maris’ temper flared.
And she knew immediately that her voice had been too loud. A whisper of movement behind her, brush of cool air against her back. Dermal sensors registered body-heat, outlining a figure 1.82 meters in height, male, just behind the curtain. And without hesitation, Maris caught the doctor’s hand in one of her own, twisted the woman’s wrist, and stood, all in one smooth movement. Slammed a forearm into the startled woman’s throat, stifling her cry of surprise, and forced the syringe back, spraying it directly up the woman’s nose, instead of her own.
As the medication took effect, she watched Alvarez’s face go slack. Registered the slowing of the doctor’s pulse, and shifted her hands to hold the woman up, keeping her from falling to the floor.
A male nurse stuck his head through the curtain, frowning slightly. “Everything okay in here?”
Dr. Alvarez frowned dreamily, but Maris helped her to a chair. “The doctor gave me something to calm down,” she replied as vacantly as she could. “Then she got dizzy.” The syringe, she cupped back along the length of her forearm, out of sight.
As the male nurse, surely called to help deal with a difficult patient, moved forward to check on the doctor, combat training tugged at Maris. She could drive the glass syringe directly into the man’s carotid artery, and he would shortly no longer be an obstacle. We don’t kill other humans. That’s not our purpose. The mission was always the Others.
She tossed the syringe aside and slid her arms around the man’s neck instead as he crouched to examine the doctor’s eyes. He stiffened and tried to struggle, to cry out, but he’d clearly had little training, and fell unconscious within seconds as she applied pressure to the arteries on both sides of the neck.
As he slumped to the ground peacefully, Maris considered her position dispassionately. So far, everything I’ve done could be construed as assault. Then again, they’re trying to subject me to surgical procedures against my will, and if they’d given me that dose and told me to sign the consent forms? I guess I probably would have. Hard to protest coercion when my signature and thumb-print are in the files, right?
She scrambled out of the pink patient gown, and then stood there, naked and uncertain, not knowing how long the nurse would be unconscious. “Dr. Alvarez?” Maris said, picking up the physician’s touchpad, and handing it to the dreamy-faced woman. “I want you to write something in my patient notes. Nothing more than the truth. The truth is always the right thing to say, isn’t it?”
“It. . . is . . .”
“Just write that I declined all procedures, but am otherwise in perfect physical health, all right?”
Fumblingly, the doctor scrawled on the pad. Maris grimaced. The lettering was large and sloppy, but doctors had notoriously bad handwriting. “Now mark me as ready for check-out, please.”
A faint frown. “You didn’t . . . complete the process.” A pause. “We only . . . want to . . . help you.”
Everyone wants to help us today. Except it’s the help you think we need, and not the help we want. “Help me?” Maris hissed. “You want to unmake me. I am not a damned danger to anyone. If I were, you’d be dead on the ground, and so would he.” Of course, now I’m arguing with a drugged woman. That’s pretty damned helpful, too.
Alvarez maundered on, “Your records show that . . . you’re suffering from PTSD, along with a variety of other psychological disorders.”
Maris froze, self-doubt locking her in place for a moment. That’s not true. It can’t be. I’ve never been diagnosed with that. I . . . need time to think. Away from here. She swallowed and triggered her internal circuitry.
Light normally reflected from her skin, the same as anyone else’s. Now, it refracted. Bounced out and around her, first with a shimmer of coruscating rainbows, and then . . . she vanished. Pushed her way, naked and unseen, through the curtains, and padded along the khaki-colored tile towards an elevator. Waited for someone else to get on it, and rode it down to the main floor. And then walked out the front door before the wing could be locked down.
Her conscience twinged repeatedly as she strode away from the hospital, through bone-chilling winter winds, holding her arms crossed over her bare chest. I’m leaving Garcia and Nejem back there. We don’t leave people behind . . . .
In her memory, the psychiatrist in the lobby raised his eyebrows and chided, “I can see you three have already linked up. But that’s . . . not really something that normal humans do.”
The hell it isn’t. Human hive, my ass. But I have to rescue myself before I can rescue them. If I even can. She shuddered at the cold, and took the precaution of turning off her chip’s locator beacon. Something almost everyone learned to do by the end of their first tour—if they were smart, anyway, or inclined to find a little privacy now and again.
An hour of riding invisibly on a dozen random buses, basking in the warmth of close-pressed humanity, allowed her to find a laundromat far from the hospital, where she also found unattended clothing. A gray sweater that hung to her knees, like a dress. Corduroy trousers. A brightly-colored knitted beret, to cover her inch-long blond hair. Warm socks, and gloves, but no shoes. She didn’t feel good about stealing the clothes, but it was winter, and white puffs of breath hanging in the air where nobody stood would be remarked. And all the dermal mods in the world wouldn’t keep her from getting frostbite or hypothermia.
Then she found a public café and huddled there, dressed in a stranger’s clothes, taking the time to think, that she hadn’t been able to afford before. All while watching her surroundings. And Maris was startled by what she saw in the café. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been around so many civilians, going about their daily lives. No one had remarked on her so far. Even the waitress, whom she’d waved away, hadn’t remarked on Maris’ lack of shoes.
Not that the people at the tables around her would have noticed anyway. Headphones jammed in place, they each sipped coffee or other beverages, their eyes glued to images on their internal HUDs that they alone could see. From the flushed face and elevated heart-rate of the man across from her, she suspected that he’d accessed a porn site.
Maris’ face twitched in mild disdain as she glanced around again. Each person seemed completely oblivious to each other and their surroundings, though they clearly were chatting with other people, perhaps half a world away. Plump and contented, these were the people whom she had spent her life serving. A dozen light-years away from any danger, they sat here, oblivious to her. To each other. To their surroundings. And they have the audacity to call lifers the human hive? What do they call this? At least we can focus outside of ourselves. We have to, to stay alive. A pause, and she frowned slightly. We had to, rather. After all, the war’s over. For now.
Maris stared out the window of the café, watching a police vehicle wend its way through the press of vehicles on the street. No way to tell if it was a routine traffic patrol, or something else. All she could do was observe and wait for a pattern to become apparent, if any did.
And her mind churned onwards. Dr. Alvarez was in no condition to lie. She truly believed that my records say I have PTSD and whatever else. But I’ve run my own chip’s log of medical data, and it has my complete file, as annotated by medics, doctors, and my superiors. There’s no mention of psychological distress. I’ve undergone my required counselling after every tour. I’ve taken leave when required.
And yet, her niggling uncertainty had to be satisfied. If she wasn’t sure of herself, then she might have attacked two medical professionals today for no good reason. It’s possible that all of the records that I have access to have been redacted, so that I’m not aware of my own psychological condition. But it wouldn’t serve any purpose, to have a soldier functioning at anything less than peak efficiency. Things have been bad on the front lines, sure. Every body needed. But someone with severe psychological problems would be a danger to everyone else in her unit. She rubbed at her eyes and checked the traffic outside the windows again, seeing another patrol car pass. A danger to others. As I may have just demonstrated on the doctor and the nurse. She felt her face tighten. So. There are two equally likely possibilities. That my chip records were falsified and I was never told that I’m suffering from any of these issues. Or that my personnel file was falsified to justify the manner in which I was to be mustered out. “And there is no way in which I can determine which is true,” Maris muttered out loud. “Not without a third party’s intervention.” Do I really have a problem? Is that why the people around me in this café look more alien than the Others ever did? Or is this the normal reaction of a soldier coming back to a civilian situation and finding the people back home complacent and self-absorbed?
Questions swirled in her mind, and she couldn’t find a place to rest inside her own head. I need objective reality. Which is somewhat hard to come by.
She propped her head on her hands for a moment, staring into the distance. I’m looking at potentially two assault charges. They could very well take all their military property from me and lock me in prison for the next twenty years. Cold radiated up from the pit of her stomach. Regardless of the truth . . . they can’t do this to me. They can’t erase who and what I am. They can’t magically turn me back into the ten-year-old girl I was before the nanites and the injections and everything else. They can’t unmake me. Or anyone else who doesn’t want to be unmade. I won’t let them.
A message scrolled across her field of vision; she’d set her chip to receive, but not send, for the moment. The local MPs politely requested that she give herself up. The last line burned there, and she stared at it dully for a long moment. You’ve given your life for the good of the human race. Now it’s time to hang it up, Kearney. For the good of society.
Closing her eyes didn’t make the words go away. I didn’t choose to become what I am, she thought tiredly. But I’ll be damned if you take who and what I am away from me, either. Just because I’m no longer convenient. Or needed.
And then she did the only thing she could. Sent a message of her own, through civilian channels, out into the wild internet. Video dump of the entire day, her service and medical records, and a plea for a human rights attorney to take her case—and the case of every other lifer out there who didn’t wish to be made safe for human consumption. “You made us what we are,” she finished her message in a whisper that the other café patrons couldn’t hear—wouldn’t hear, until they happened to log to a social media site. “You could unmake us. But if you’ve trusted us for decades to save your lives . . . I think it’s time that you saved ours.”
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.