Zero Repeat Forever
There is a light floating above me. Nothing I recognize. I remember moving, so I try to move.
“Don’t move,” someone says, so I stop. “Do you know where you are?” I try to answer but find I can’t speak because there’s something in my mouth. I shake my head. I remember gestures and signs. Something about memorizing them and being tested on them. “Do you know who you are?” I search that part of my memory and find it a void. Not small, or undeveloped, but empty. Emptied. I shake my head again.
“Good,” the voice says. “Close your eyes.” I can’t remember ever choosing for myself, so I do as I’m told. The idea of obedience fills me, flowing through me like warm, viscous fluid. Obedience and anger, as though that’s all I’m made of.
“Eighth,” someone says. There’s another noise, like a hiss. “You’ll manage,” the first voice says. “He’ll learn from you.”
Behind my eyelids thoughts squirm around, jumbled and messy, out of order. I try to catch them, but they skitter into cracks and holes, like frightened animals.
“Try to relax,” the voice says. “It’s just residual neural impulses. It will go away.”
But what if I don’t want—
There’s a bright flash. And a noise like thunder. And everything shakes.
Her hands blur in front of my eyes.
What are your directives?
I only nod. I can’t answer. I’m holding my rifle with both hands.
The heel of her hand connects hard with my forehead, slamming me back against the metal wall behind me.
I nod. Nod. Nod.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Dart each one. Leave them where they fall. Understand?
I know this anyway. The directives are humming in my mind like a swollen river churning over rocks.
You must obey.
I am obedience. I am malice. I grip my rifle tightly, fingers and hands absorbing the weight of it, the feel of the trigger, the faint vibrations.
Then I am running behind her, my hand on her shoulder, clanging over steel and stone as we’re consumed by heat and fire and noise. At first all I hear are weapons. Our precise ones and their brutal, noisy ones. But under that is another sound.
Screaming. They are screaming. I put my hands over my ears.
What are you doing?
I nod. Yes.
Stupid defective low rank mud for brains.
She drags me, pulling my hands away from my ears. Ahead of us on the road, emerging from the flames and smoke, a human vehicle appears. I fumble for my rifle, but she has already fired; the dart punctures the glass and the face of the driver. There’s a screech as the car swerves toward us, and I’m leaping for it, pushing it away into a high wall as she stands there, undaunted, her rifle still raised.
Break it, she signs with one hand, marching toward me.
I turn and drive my fists through the window of the door. Inside, small humans scream.
Dart them, she says.
They scream and scream. I can’t move.
I step back as she raises her rifle. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
The screaming stops. She drags me away before I can take a breath.
Follow me! Her hands slash through the air. Obey me!
We run between two high buildings, emerging into chaos. Hundreds of humans with guns and shields fire at our lines.
Bullets bounce off my back as she leads me into the fray. Behind the humans with shields others are pushing and running, trying to get into a building. Our line breaks, and we follow a group that plows right through the shields and guns. The armed humans fall around us. One of them gets its fingers around her arm, pulling her rifle down. I grab the human by the neck and fling it away, watching it tumble into a heap with others.
Good, she says.
Her praise enlivens me. As the humans pour in through the door of the building, I leap up and tear open a window. She clambers ahead of me, and I dive after her, landing among the screaming humans as they scatter, desperately scrambling for exits. Her rifle whines as she darts them, one by one. When she stops, there are a dozen humans motionless on the floor.
Good, I say, though I feel dizzy and hot. I’m burning. I sway on my feet, reaching for her.
Think cold, she says.
Yes. I do what she says and feel my body cool down and my head clear. Malice is cold. Obedience is cold. I am cold.
There’s a huge noise outside, one of their crude weapons. The force of the explosion blows the remaining windows inward. Instinctively, I pull her under me, curling my back over her as the glass tinkles down around us. She shoves me away, stepping over bodies, and turns back to the door the humans came in.
Outside is smoke and flames. Those of our soldiers who don’t lie in pieces among the darted humans stagger to their feet. A transport swoops down, hovering over the carnage. She pulls me away from the transport, back along the ruined road. Over our heads a human aircraft explodes, raining debris. She worms away from me before I can shield her and stands with her arms out, defiant, her face turned to the explosion in the sky as burning embers drift down around us like . . .
Over the roar of our transport and the screams of fleeing humans I hear something else, a kind of whistle. A flash of light shoots past us and cracks into the side of a human car, shattering the windows. She takes one step toward the car before I can stop her.
Then I’m falling. Shards of metal careen at me before I land. My arm twists up to block one, another smacks into my face. I hit the ground hard and sink.
Obedience. Anger. I’m swimming in it. My insides twist and churn and thoughts scurry out of the holes in my mind.
Snow . . .
A sunset . . . the smell of . . .
It’s just residual neural impulses. Pain stomps on them, killing them.
I blink away the blood in my eyes. She’s hanging over me, kneeling by my head.
I try. The air is too thick. I’m choking. My head is open and everything is escaping. And I’m on fire.
Cold. Think cold. Obey.
Are you damaged? I sign with one hand. The other hand is not working.
No. Breathe again.
I obey. Each breath is like a flaming knife. I turn my head to the side and let my thoughts drip out. I’m forgetting everything. I’ve forgotten how to hold on to thoughts. I put my good hand over the hole in my head to try . . .
Stop. Be still.
She touches my face. Her hand is warm and firm.?You will live, she signs. Keep breathing.
The agony of the next breath erases everything.
My eyes snap open in the dark. The battle is over. We are alone now in the building with the darted humans. Silver moonlight through the broken window outlines her as she moves.
You scared me, Eighth, she says. I thought you would die.
That makes me feel so happy that the pain becomes meaningless.